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Freak crash causes power outage in city

Minnesota Power workers contemplate a long day's work righting and re-setting power poles and lines pulled over in a freak accident Thursday afternoon. Power was restored early Friday morning. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
The power box and meter were ripped off the side of Barb Wheeler's house when a truck with an elevated utility bucket snagged a power line nearby, setting off a chain reaction that resulted in a nine-hour outage. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

Much of Park Rapids was left in the dark Thursday afternoon when a boom truck operator snagged a power line, setting off a chain reaction and causing a massive power outage in the south end of town.

The accident, around 3:30 p.m., on Seventh Street South just off U.S. Highway 71, caused reverberations throughout the city. Businesses and homes a mile away lost power momentarily when the truck hit the line.

Minnesota Power officials said 1,600 customers were without power for nine hours. Electricity was restored by 12:30 a.m. Friday.

The truck, from Thelen Precast of Park Rapids, apparently drove down Seventh Street with the boom elevated, grabbing the power line near the alley midway down the block. The truck pulled the line, toppling power poles a block in either direction of the crash scene. Power poles were pulled askew with live cables draped over a two block area. Crews had to carefully lift the sparking live wires off the truck before the driver, 60-year old James Harju of rural Park Rapids, could get out.

The trapped man was examined at the scene by paramedics, who said he was not injured.

"It was one of those oops moments," said a police officer on the scene.

Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers said Harju had dropped off some concrete blocks at a gas service company in the vicinity and thought he heard someone yelling at him as he pulled out of the lot.

"He thought he'd just go around the block on Seventh to see what he might have left behind when he hit the telephone cable," Eilers said. "Those poles are pretty old and he just pulled them all over." Eilers said the driver will not be charged; it was an unfortunate "expensive" accident.

Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said the company had to reset three poles entirely and straighten others.

"The resetting was what takes the time," she said. The power pole closest to the accident scene snapped off at the base, pulling others over like dominos.

Barb Wheeler was at ground zero when the accident occurred.

She and Orris Rasmussen were inside the Wheeler home watching a movie. She lives at the intersection of Park Avenue and Seventh Street. Highway 71 through Park Rapids is called Park Avenue.

"All of a sudden we heard a big bang and the house shook," Wheeler said. "The TV went off."

They rushed outside to see what had caused it.

Wheeler's power box and meter had been ripped off the exterior wall of her home.

"We felt the house shake," Rasmussen said. "There were sparks all over" near the power line closest to the snagged line.

Minnesota Power officials on the scene said residences and businesses south of Seventh Street were affected, all the way to Straight River Township south of Park Rapids.

"It's a pretty big area," said one lineman.

Emergency crews swarmed into the area, blocking off alleys and streets where live power lines were looped over trees, through lawns and down alleyways.

Wheeler said she had three freezers and two refrigerators full of food.

"Don't open them!" a power company worker cautioned. He said they'd stay cooler with the doors closed.

Wheeler looked to the positive. She reasoned if things got tough, she could hold a party to consume the cold beer before it warmed up. She graciously invited the responders.

"I got great service from my insurance man," she said. "He was here before the cops were."

State Farm Insurance agent Pat Sullivan was two doors away in his Park Avenue office. He raced outside to check on everyone.

Next door to his offices Jones-Pearson Funeral Home was left in the dark.

So was the Park Rapids Fire Department just south of the funeral home. It probably didn't matter. Some firefighters were on the scene, but they weren't paged and even though their trucks were behind electric garage doors, the department has a redundant system to open the doors and use the radios in case of similar emergencies.

Sullivan filed Wheeler's claim. He likely will also be a claimant.