Adventurers electrocuted

Adventurers electrocuted

By Peter Aseltine and Mary Caffrey

Staff Writers

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP — Two 19-year-old friends were electrocuted yesterday when they stumbled upon a dangling high-voltage wire while climbing at Cradle Rock, a steep, rocky section of Princeton Ridge just beyond the end of Province Line Road that is popular with area rock climbers, police said.

The two township men, Keith J. Combs of Harbourton-Rocktown Road and David Hutchinson of East Prospect Street, a member of the Hopewell Fire Department, were found about 5 p.m. by firefighters who went to the site after smoke was spotted coming from the ridge, said township police spokesman Lt. Michael Chipowsky.

The smoke was from a brush fire that started when the victims came in contact with the 26,000-volt Public Service Electric & Gas Co. power line, Chipowsky said.

The wire had come loose from a utility pole and was hanging, intact, about 8 feet above the ground, Chipowsky said. He said the insulator that had held the wire on top of the pole was broken.

The smoke was seen by a PSE&G employee working at a switching station in the area on something unrelated to the downed wire, Chipowsky said.

When members of the Princeton Volunteer Fire Co. arrived at the remote site and started to douse the small brush fire, they made the grisly discovery.

Combs’ body was severely burned. Police immediately called for an ambulance, reporting by radio that Combs was dead and Hutchinson had no pulse.

Paramedics tried to revive Hutchinson while rushing him to The Medical Center at Princeton, where doctors also worked to save him, police said. He was pronounced dead about 6:10 p.m., police said.

IT APPEARED that Combs either reached up for the dangling wire or was caught unaware when the electricity arced downward, officials said.

Electricity can arc more than 6 feet from such high-voltage lines, fire officials said.

Investigators found what appeared to be a handprint burned into the skin of Combs’ back, leading some to theorize that Hutchinson might have grabbed Combs in an effort to save him after he came into contact with the wire. But Chipowsky said there probably would be no way to confirm that theory.

Hutchinson was found about 6 feet from Combs, police said.

PSE&G spokesman Neil Brown said company investigators do not yet know what caused the line to fall from the pole.

He said employees at the company’s Trenton switching station received a signal of trouble on the line about 4:30 p.m. Chipowsky said it is likely that was the time when the victims were electrocuted.

When members of the Hopewell Fire Department and Emergency Medical Unit got the call about “something burning,” they weren’t…

… sure where it was, fire Chief Laurence Omland said.

The chief led some firefighters along one stretch of Province Line Road, and Deputy Chief Greg Peck took another. Hopewell Township police soon radioed word that the Princeton firefighters had found two climbers, Omland said.

The same breathtaking rocks and paths that attract so many outdoorsmen proved troublesome for the Hopewell Medical Response team that wound its way into the muddy cowpath.

Then came the grim discovery that it was one of their own who had fallen.

“IT’S A TRAUMATIC situation,” said Omland, who spoke at a closed meeting of the fire and rescue company whose combined ranks come to more than 60 members.

Rescue workers, led by Capt. Patty Phillips of Hopewell Borough, struggled to get the ambulance carrying Hutchinson in and out of the craggy path.

Combs and Hutchinson were both 1991 graduates of Hopewell Valley Regional High School. Both lived with their parents, police said.

Combs worked for K.P. Burke, a Pennington-based builder, said a friend who asked not to be named. He was a rock climber and a skilled boat racer, the friend said. Hutchinson was a student at Tren-ton State College. He joined the Hopewell Fire Department as a junior firefighter when he was 16 and performed routine tasks while waiting to become a full-fledged firefighter. He made the grade when he turned 18, according to Omland and Peck.

“He was very active and a very good firefighter,” Omland said. Hutchinson’s younger brother, Greg, a student at Hopewell Valley High School, recently followed his brother into the junior firefighter ranks.

Combs and Hutchinson were joined by their love of outdoor activities, friends said.

PECK SAID the pair enjoyed climbing and riding mountain bikes in the winding hills of northern Hopewell Township.

“The paths wind up and down over lots of big rocks — it’s the perfect place for someone who’s into that kind of thing,” the deputy chief said.

The two were adventurous but not careless, friends said. Word of the accident spread like wildfire through tiny Hopewell Borough, as local restaurant workers and gas station attendants shared bits of news about two local youths who’d spent their lives in the close community. Omland said the tragic deaths hit hard among the fire and rescue workers, who kept to themselves last night at the firehouse.

Staff writers Charles Stile and Leslie Gornstein contributed to this report. 

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