Worker pleads for death during electrical shock

By Scott McCabe, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, Sunday, February 17, 2002

WEST PALM BEACH -- For 40 minutes Saturday, landscaper Pedro Graves hung in a tree 40 feet above the ground, screaming for mercy as electricity coursed through his body. Smoke curled from his head. Foam trickled from his mouth and ears. In Spanish, he cried for a gun, begging his co-workers to shoot him. Below, a dozen burly West Palm Beach rescue workers -- trained to throw themselves into danger -- could only watch helplessly from the back yard at 215 28th St. The entire tree was hot with electricity and Florida Light & Power was nowhere to be found, West Palm Beach Fire-Rescue spokesman Phil Kaplan said. Finally, the 2-inch thick limb touching the live line burned itself out and fell, and firefighters went to work about 12:20 p.m., using a long ladder, rope, pulleys and a makeshift harness to haul Graves to safety. An FPL worker arrived as this was happening and turned off the power. Graves was taken to St. Mary's Medical Center, where he was in fair condition Saturday night, a hospital spokesman said. "He's just plain lucky," Kaplan said. "In the grand scheme of things, this was not an easy one." Rescue workers got a call that someone was in the tree at 11:48 a.m. and arrived at 11:50, acting Battalion Chief Cletus Pirtle said. They called the power company at least twice, Kaplan said. FPL got a call at 11:59 a.m. and its worker arrived at 12:32 p.m., company spokesman Mike Schwebel said. "It seems that the regular procedures were taken and the time was reasonable," Schwebel said. "We're just relieved that he's going to be OK."As normal procedure, FPL will investigate, he said. Neighbor Anthony Harrington was renovating his home with friends at 210 29th St. when he heard Graves' screams on 28th Street. "Everybody up and down the block heard him scream," Harrington said. Graves had been trimming a tree when a 10-foot branch fell on a power line connected to the house. Electricity jumped from the branch to the tree to Graves. Graves' co-workers desperately tried to help, Harrington said. He and his friends had to stop them from raising the aluminum ladder and shocking themselves. When Graves fell limp and silent, the onlookers turned away. They thought Graves was dead. "I couldn't watch anymore," said neighbor Philip Scarborough. Within minutes, Graves came to and started screaming again. He continued this way, falling in and out of a screaming consciousness every five minutes or so, witnesses said. As the rain grew heavier, so did Graves' pain, as the water dripping down the tree became a electrical conduit, Pirtle said. Fire-rescue workers yelled at him not to give up, to think of his family. Graves replied that he wanted to die, he couldn't hang on. "It was very frustrating," Pirtle said. "There was nothing we could do." Pirtle, however, said it was hard to be critical of FPL's employee -- he was told the company had only five workers working three counties Saturday. Even with the electricity turned off, the rescue was tricky. Graves draped himself around a limb and weakly clung to branches. Smoke hung in the damp, rainy air. The ladder steps were slippery. Fire-rescue workers positioned a brown tarpaulin beneath Graves in case he fell. Two medics, Capt. Ron Lauth and Fire Medic Troy Schurter, climbed the ladder and wrapped a florescent yellow, tubular-webbing harness around him. Schurter stepped down the ladder, holding Graves to his chest. In Spanish, Graves moaned, "Water, water."

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Bryan Haywood