Accident could have been deadly

On Monday, June 25, this 2001 Toyota Camry ended up straddling an open utility vault in the aftermath of a traffic accident. Scorching from live utility wires arcing in the vault can be seen on the passenger side door.   - Mercer Island Fire Department/Contributed Photo
On Monday, June 25, this 2001 Toyota Camry ended up straddling an open utility vault in the aftermath of a traffic accident. Scorching from live utility wires arcing in the vault can be seen on the passenger side door.
— image credit: Mercer Island Fire Department/Contributed Photo

The 81-year old woman whose car crashed into one of the above-ground utility vaults on the sidewalk outside of The Mercer apartments at 77th Avenue S.E. and S.E. 27th Street, last Monday, was lucky.

Her 2001 Toyota Camry slammed into the box after she ran a red light at the intersection and was broadsided by a car driven by a 24-year-old Islander.

The impact caused her to veer onto the sidewalk and hit the vault.

But it is what she did after the crash that saved her.

She stayed in her car after it came to rest straddling the now open utility box and its electrical equipment. If she had not, she could have been seriously hurt or killed by the electrical current.

The impact of the car to the utility vault, called a “switching can” by Puget Sound Energy, pushed the metal housing that contained electrical equipment that was energized.

The collision and its aftermath brought down power to more than 4,000 customers. Including the Town Center, outages were reported as far south as the neighborhood around Mercer Island High School.

For some, the outage lasted more than two hours.

According to Mercer Island Fire Chief Chris Tubbs and fire department reports, there were six fire apparatus on the scene. All seven Island firefighters on duty responded, as well as four from Bellevue who arrived with an aid car and a ladder truck.

The first Island firefighters from the North end fire station responded in 2.5 minutes. Personnel from the South end followed with Bellevue units within another few minutes.

Puget Sound Energy crews responded to the scene, arriving 34 minutes after the call.

According to fire department reports, the driver of the Camry that hit the vault had to remain in her car for approximately 45 minutes until the power was secure.

Besides the driver in the car straddling the vault, firefighters were very concerned about the safety of the three dozen or so onlookers near the intersection, Tubbs explained.

The damage to the utility equipment meant that there was the likelihood that the ground was energized — meaning that anyone near the scene could have received a shock or have been electrocuted.

“We always approach a situation like this with the assumption that the ground is energized,” he said.

“Our first thought when we respond to any scene is to ‘prevent further harm,’” he added. “And in this case, we had the people who had come to look to worry about.

“We are thinking, ‘How do we keep them safe?’” Tubbs said.

The firefighters immediately established a “hot zone” of 75 feet in every direction around the scene.

No one was seriously injured during the incident. The two drivers were bumped and bruised, but refused treatment and went home.

Puget Sound Energy crews remained at the scene to repair the damage, replacing the housing for the vaults early in the evening.

City Manager Rich Conrad is unhappy with Puget Sound Energy and The Mercer’s developer and owner, James Cassan. Neither party has yet dealt with the issue of having the above-ground utility boxes at the busy corner.

Large power and switching units, such as the ones at the Town Center intersection, are usually placed underground.

The two units are owned by PSE and are on a permanent easement granted to them by Dollar Development, which owns the land.

According to Conrad, the utility vaults have been on the property long before The Mercer was constructed in 2006, and are “original” to the site.

Soon after the incident, Conrad sent a message to PSE that said in part:

“As you know, the city has sought the removal of these boxes since ‘The Mercer’ was built. We [the city] have offered financial incentives to PSE and the property owner [James Cassan] to have them undergrounded or moved into his building. Mr. Cassan has been unwilling to take responsibility. PSE has been lukewarm. Because the boxes are on private property, ultimately the decision to move them lies with PSE and the owner.”

Watch the Reporter for additional stories to find out more about the situation with the utility boxes.


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