19-Year-Old Survives 7,200 Volts, Then Dies from Lack of Electricity
Sweat beads down Lewis Wheelan’s forehead, salty water stinging his eyes as he tries to reach a nearby branch with his long pruning tool. He’s been working all day to clear tree branches away from dangerous power lines. He takes a moment to wipe away the sweat, but as his vision clears, he sees it falling. A branch from a nearby tree snaps, dangles for a moment before it falls to the ground, but not before hitting one of the lines.
In an instant, Lewis feels hot lava shoot up his limbs as the tree branch bursts into flames. Three vicious arcs of light streak through the air, sending 7,200 volts of electricity into Lewis’s body, setting him ablaze. Against all odds, Lewis survived. Electricity nearly killed him, and thanks to modern medical technology, electricity was able to save him as well. Then, on August 14th 2003, in a matter of minutes, 50 million people were without power, and in some areas, it wouldn’t come back for days.
At the end of the disaster, almost 100 people lost their lives, and for Lewis, it was just the beginning of the end. In the summer of May 2001, Lewis Wheelan was excited to move on to his second year studying economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. He was a math whiz as well as an athlete and outdoorsman.
Then for a summer job with a contractor that was paying only 10$ an hour, Lewis was assigned to cut dense foliage that had grown too close to power lines, or “hydro” lines as others in Ontario would have called them, Lewis found himself at the business end of 7,200 volts of electricity. The electrocution accident took one arm and both of his legs, and left him with extensive skin grafting across his body, a small effort to improve the severe burns the electricity cut across his body. In addition to medications, Lewis’s body depended on constant and consistent air conditioning in his Toronto apartment to keep his body from overheating. Two years later, the grid providing power to North America’s East coast, including Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, went through a massive blackout cutting off over 50 million people from electricity. Speaking of cutting, Thanks to this video’s sponsor, Kamikoto! Kamikoto makes amazing Japanese steel kitchen knives, utilizing traditional handcrafting techniques honed by generations of knife smiths over 800 years. The quality of the blades are sought out by Michelin star chefs all over the world! The single bevel edge of the knives give the Japanese steel an edge so sharp that even cutting ribeye is a piece of cake.
But the best thing about Kamikoto knives is how balanced they feel, it just feels so natural to hold even the first time you get your hands on one. Each Kamikoto knife is individually inspected before shipping and comes with a lifetime guarantee, along with a beautiful heavy duty ash wood box for storage, which makes them a great present. Kamikoto is now running a Black Friday Sale and is offering Brew viewers an extra 50 US dollars off on any purchase with the discount code, BREW50, on top of their special offers. Go to kamikoto.com/brew50 to get your beautiful Japanese steel knives, and help support our channel! The blackout occurred on Thursday August 14th. As Friday morning rolled around, Lewis’s family knew that Toronto was still without power, and their thoughts immediately turned to their son who they knew would be suffering without electricity.
Emergency responders needed to get to their son quickly to save him. If they didn’t get there in time, his death would be slow, terrible, and ultimately, avoidable. Three major issues preceded the system failure that day in August. First was the loss of some transmission lines outside of the Midwest Independent System Operator or MISO’s particular section of the power grid. The “grid” by the way, refers to the interconnected system of power generation and transmission in a particular region.
There are 4 basic grids in North America. There’s the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection, the Ercot Interconnection—basically Texas, and the Quebec Interconnection. Each of these vast areas are managed by multiple smaller “reliability coordinators”, in this case, MISO for the Midwest, that ensure power companies generating and transmitting power work safely and reliably. So the problem that MISO found itself in was that its “state estimator”, a computer that takes in data and gives operators overall information about how the power grid is doing, couldn’t make sense of the data coming in. Power doesn’t move in only one direction, like water would be flowing downhill. It flows in all directions.
The flow of electricity constantly changes as the state of the grid changes. Generators are turned on and off, people in homes cook on stoves, do laundry with washing machines, businesses open and close, literally anything that uses power changes the state of the entire grid on the fly so a computer to calculate everything is required. Transmission lines outside of MISO’s area of coverage had tripped and shut down. One at 12:08 PM, another at 1:31, and one more at 2:02.
MISO didn’t know at the time, because that information wasn’t updated automatically, it had to be put in manually. The loss of 3 transmission lines doesn’t seem that bad, but the state estimator feeds data into something called a Real-Time Contingency Analysis— another computer that calculates out every possible risk so that operators can fix any potential problems. With the loss of those transmission lines, the remaining lines in MISO’s area were importing more power than was accounted for.
The lines were much much closer to being overloaded than MISO knew, but without the data, they couldn’t predict or advise any of the energy providers in their area on what to do. And this would continue until 2 minutes before the catastrophic failure. The second issue that arose that day relates to a beautiful technology called air conditioning. As temperatures rise, more people turn on their AC which increases the load on the power grid, so around noon that sweltering August day, AC use skyrocketed. This matters because air conditioners act funny on power grids. AC units use inductive loads, which lag the current behind voltage.
It’s complicated, but all you need to know is that AC units use “reactive power”, whereas other electrical appliances tend to use “real power”. At the time, the Cleveland-Akron area was importing most of their energy from the South West, but with so many air conditioners powering up, MISO’s area was in desperate need of more reactive power. One of the ways that power operators solve this, is by using capacitor banks, which can store small amounts of reactive power to buffer situations like these. Unfortunately, the power company for the Cleveland-Akron area, FirstEnergy, had yet to replace 4 capacitor banks that had broken down.
A problem with reactive power is that you lose a lot of it as you transmit it over power lines. Without those capacitors, and without the ability to import reactive power, FirstEnergy only had one option left. Over-exciting the generators in the area. That meant pushing generators to output more power than they were expected to. Unfortunately, over-exciting is risky, and at 1:30pm, the Eastlake Coal-fired plant on Lake Erie tripped, shutting down the generator.
With more and more power coming into the area from the South and East on the few transmission lines left in the area, the situation was tenuous, then at 2:15pm, the control room at FirstEnergy experienced a series of computer failures, knocking out their alarm system. I don’t think I need to tell you that an alarm is important, but even more so for power generators. The alarms don’t just ring when there’s a fire, or some other big problem, but for literally everything the operators would have to react to. Power operators don’t sit in front of screens watching graphs and data, they respond to alerts for specific things. There’s an alarm for anytime a transmission line trips, or the energy demand is rising above supply, or when a generator goes offline.
In the words of Professional Civil Engineer Grady Hillhouse, “FirstEnergy operators were essentially driving on a long country highway with their fuel gauge stuck on “full,” not realizing they were nearly out of gas.” As we’ve learned, after the loss of MISO’s State Estimator, the loss of FirstEnergy’s Coal plant on Lake Erie, and multiple computer failures in FirstEnergy’s control room knocking out their alarm system, the power grid in the Cleveland-Akron area was flying by the seat of its pants, and its pants were hanging in tatters, and they had no idea that their seat was dangling off the edge of a deep ravine. Not knowing about those three issues, FirstEnergy began importing more power from outside their area which increased the loads on transmission lines leading into the region. This was exacerbated by rising temperatures and increased air conditioner use, leading FirstEnergy headfirst into a cascading failure. It all came down to heat.
You may know that as materials heat up, they expand. This is due to molecular excitement, and other more finicky science, but what matters to us is that power lines heat up as their electrical loads increase, and on that day, the summer sun only worsened the problem. Y’know when you’re driving along and the cables always dip between the poles? Well, as the cables heat up they begin to sag more and more. As the day passed, temperatures rose as well as power imports until 3pm, when the Harding-Chamberlin transmission line, a key import line into the Cleveland-Akron area, sagged into a tree, short circuiting the whole line, which triggered relays to shut it all down. FirstEnergy has no idea that this has happened, and only a half hour later, at 3:30pm, the Hanna-Juniper line, another key import line, sags into a tree as well, short circuiting and tripping offline. FirstEnergy’s IT employees are solving their computer issues, however, no one has told the control room that anything is wrong.
Now, all of the power that would be going down the first two transmission lines is all going down the Star-South Canton line, but not for long. At 3:40pm, only ten minutes after the loss of Hanna-Juniper, the Star-South Canton line sags into a tree, shorts, and trips offline as well. Still, FirstEnergy has NO clue that anything has happened. They’ve sent out crews to get boots on the ground to hopefully wrangle the situation, but there isn’t enough time. Now, all the power heading into Cleveland begins tripping transmission lines like crazy. In half an hour, 16 different lines trip.
The last remaining 345 kv lines into Cleveland—the highest voltage lines—was the Sammis-Star line, and as it saw a rapid increase in voltage, increasing to 120% of its rated capacity, assumed that there was a fault, and tripped offline. With all major routes for power into the Cleveland area cut from the South, power began to course into the area from the East, West, and North, severing transmission lines across the board. With Cleveland, Detroit, and Toledo cut off from power in every direction other than from Canada to the North-East, a massive power surge rotated in a counterclockwise direction from Pittsburgh, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Detroit, Toledo, and finally into Cleveland. Leaving thousands in the dark. When all was said and done, enough transmission lines had tripped and made the entire region an electrical island. In addition to that at least 265 power plants shut down, and as power consumption continued to rise, with no power generation in the area, and no routes from import, the system collapsed.
Now that we know how the 2003 blackout went down, we should also know what to do to prepare when a power outage happens. First off if your neighbors still have power, then it might just be your home without power. Check if any wires leading to your home have been severed. If they have been damaged, get away from them immediately, and contact local authorities. You should also unplug all unnecessary electrical appliances, like microwaves, alarm clocks, computers, and others. It’s easier for operators to restore power with less power being drawn by consumers, and when electricity is restored, it could be accompanied by a power surge, which can damage expensive appliances.
If you use power bars with surge protectors, then simply turning them off is enough. It’s also helpful to turn off your phone unless you’re actively using it, however powering up and shutting down uses lots of power, so only check your phone every few hours. That said, you should leave 2 lights on. One on the inside of your home, and if possible, one on the outside. This is so you, and repair crews can tell when power comes back. Leave your fridge and freezer closed as much as possible, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
A full freezer can stay food safe for a good 24-36 hours if it stays closed. Speaking of food, having a backup camping stove or barbecue will be helpful, but you should never, ever use them inside. Gas buildup can kill, and on the same note, keeping a small backup diesel/gas/propane generator can be a godsend in longer blackouts, but again, never use them inside. Similarly, make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector in your home. If you want to learn all about carbon monoxide poisoning, you can check out our episode here! If power is out for an extended period, water pumping services are likely to also be unavailable, so filling a bathtub with water for cooking and washing will be very useful. It’s also very helpful to have a “go-bag” and an emergency route prepared in case you need to evacuate.
Go-bags should include things like 48 hours worth of water per person, non-perishable food, a manual can opener, a wind-up flashlight and radio, some cash, and any medications or supports if you have a disability. Speaking of disabilities, Lewis Wheelan’s experiences can tell us just how frightening blackouts can be. Lewis, needing constant air conditioning to maintain his body temperature following his terrible accident, paid for his apartment with the help of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The organization supported his medical care and rehab through their Seriously Injured Workers Program.
The WSIB also assigned an attendant to provide care for Lewis. They cleaned his apartment, helped him bathe, and recently began driving him wherever he needed in a wheelchair equipped van Lewis had just gotten a week prior to the blackout. However, when Lewis’ mother Melanie couldn’t reach him on his cellphone during the first day of the blackout, she called the WSIB the next morning at 9:30 am. There was no answer, all she could do was leave a message asking them to check up on her son as soon as they could. Melanie said later that “we were worried because we hadn't been able to reach Lewis. The WSIB knows his medical problems".
When Melanie learned that the WSIB office in Toronto closed after the blackout, she immediately called the next closest office in Thunder Bay, but the representative told her that there was no way to contact anyone in Toronto, even in the worst case scenario. Lewis’s parents desperately tried to contact other people in the city who could check up on him, eventually connecting with an acquaintance from his church who went to Lewis’s apartment. She knocked on the door, but there was no response.
She thought maybe Lewis went somewhere, but found his van still parked in front of the building. When she returned to the apartment, paramedics had already arrived. When medical teams could finally get into his apartment, it was already too late. Without electricity to power his air conditioner, Lewis overheated and passed away. A terrible, tragic, and ironic death.
It was electricity that nearly took his life, electricity that gave him another chance to live in comfort, and ultimately, the lack thereof that stole him from his family. Lewis and his parents did their best to prepare for the worst, but sometimes, failure is impossible to predict. Living with a disability necessitates extra planning to ensure your safety, and the safety of your loved ones, but there are things we can do regardless of ability. You can plan an evacuation route with elevators and ramps in mind if mobility is an issue.
As well as informing property managers or landlords if you live in an apartment, that you need evacuation in a blackout, so you can make a plan of action ahead of time. You can also take time to establish a support network of friends, family, and neighbors that can check up on you or a loved one in an emergency. It’s also helpful to keep a list of facilities that can provide care and self-sustaining equipment, as well as a list of your medical conditions and medications you need. In the same vein, there are also medical alert programs that can signal for help in an emergency. The irony of how Lewis Wheelan lost his life was not missed by his family. He was mortally injured clearing trees from under power lines, becoming disabled attempting to prevent the very scenario that took his life years later.
In the aftermath of the blackout, like in any disaster, people wanted to know who to blame. While MISO, and FirstEnergy share some of the culpability according to a Joint Canadian and American Task Force in charge of evaluating the causes of the blackout, there’s much more at work to ensure a blackout of this scale never happens again. For a long time American regulations concerning the construction and maintenance of the power grid, incentivised the construction of new infrastructure, not the upkeep of already existing components.
Power companies don’t make money by selling us electricity, but by taking investments, building new infrastructure, then getting regulators to approve the cost with a slight return on investment. That way, their investors and the company itself can both make some money. But there’s no profit motive to make the existing grid more robust, or in repairing and maintaining old equipment.
Much like the power grid itself, the laws governing its use and maintenance are just as complicated. Technology can do wonders when it comes to making our world a safer, more efficient place, but the only way we could truly move forward is if we continue to develop our laws as well. Remember to check out Kamikoto’s single bevel edge Japanese steel knives at kamikoto.com/brew50, and use our code, BREW50 to get an additional 50 dollars off your purchase!