On a hot afternoon in late July, a heavy-duty delivery truck with a giant crane loaded stacks of lumber directly into the third-floor window of a house under renovation in Watertown.
Afterward, as the delivery crew began driving away, the crane snagged some overhead wires, pulling down a utility pole. About a dozen homes on Hillcrest Circle lost power, some for as long as a day and a half, in sweltering heat.
Catherine Madani lost $500 worth of steak tips and shrimp she had purchased for a family party; Jack Keating, next door, incurred $1,200 in damages when the electrical service box was ripped off the side of his house.
But New England Building Supply, whose truck yanked down the wires, said it’s not to blame and is refusing to reimburse them.
The building supply company told neighbors at the time of the accident, and repeated to me last week, that the wires were hung too low — well below the regulation height of 18 feet and even lower than the height of their crane, which measured 13 feet 6 inches above the street when contracted, according to the truck driver.
When I reached Verizon, which owned the pole, a company spokesman told me it was unaware that a delivery truck had pulled down the pole.
“We had been notified of a downed pole, and when we arrived there were no police, electric utility, or cable workers, or the delivery truck on site,” said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. “It was just us.”
Several other companies leased space on the same pole: Comcast, RCN, and Eversource.
Verizon replaced the pole within hours, unaware of any accusations about the height of the wires. “As far as we know, it was at the proper height,” McConville said.
Madani has concentrated her efforts on the company responsible for ripping down the wires: New England Building Supply. Within hours of the accident she called the company, asking to be reimbursed for the food she lost when her two refrigerators lost power. She never heard from the company again.
“It’s like they tried to sweep it under the rug,” she said. “C’mon. Step up and own it.”
“This never should have happened,” said Keating, who also has not been reimbursed. “Don’t tell me it’s not your fault. It’s your truck. You are responsible for the wires. That’s delivery truck 101.”
Keating, a builder, said he has had plenty of experience with building supply deliveries at the houses he has renovated and sold in recent years. It saves a lot of time and money when the delivery crew uses a crane to place supplies exactly where they are needed. Normally, he said, the delivery crew stops the truck before approaching the house to check the surroundings, looking especially for overhead wires.
Keating said he always checks with the delivery crew at his house renovations “to make sure we’re all on the same page” on overhead clearance and any other issues. The delivery that caused all the problems was made to a neighbor’s house while Keating was away.
One obvious possibility is that the crane — the boom, as it is known — was in the down position upon arrival but partially up as the truck moved away. How else to explain how the truck managed to get in without incident but not out?
But the police report, compiled before Verizon arrived on the scene and apparently based only on the driver’s account, says the boom “was properly cradled and secured.”
“Operator of the boom truck stated the top of the boom measures” 13 feet 6 inches, the report says. “He has personally measured it.”
That would mean the wires were way too low, so low that it’s a wonder they were never snagged by one of the large trucks that pick up trash in the neighborhood every week.
The standard in the industry is that wires must be at least 18 feet off the ground. I took a ladder and measuring tape out to the street in front of my house. The wires are 18 feet high at the pole (the wires sag between poles, maybe a foot or so, but still well above 13 feet 6 inches, by my estimate). If the wires on my street were less than 13 feet 6 inches, I think I would have noticed it, and maybe even made a call to report it.
Madani and Keating said they never noticed that the wires in their neighborhood seemed particularly low.
New England Building Supply acknowledged to me that Madani called about the incident, and that someone was supposed to follow up, but apparently did not. One of the managers told me he would call me back to give a fuller explanation.
Instead, I got a call from the supply company’s insurer, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company.
Francis Santoro, representing the insurer, blamed low-hanging wires. He said he was willing to hear out anyone who wanted to present information about the incident, but apparently had made little effort to do so. He had not contacted Madani or Keating before I got involved.
Here’s what I think: In the hours after the accident, a representative of New England Building Supply should have walked around the neighborhood to collect names and contact information of anyone who might have been affected.
Then, the supply company should have approached Eversource or Verizon or Comcast or whomever to ask about their wires in the neighborhood. I don’t know if New England Building Supply is entirely responsible, or if one of the utilities is entirely responsible, or if there’s shared responsibility.
I do know who is not responsible: Madani and Keating.
They should be made whole.