Heroism, error seen in climbers’ deaths

February 12, 1993

The Times

Heroism, error seen in climbers’ deaths

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP — Keith J. Combs apparently reached up and grabbed the badly sagging high-voltage line that killed him, while his friend David Hutchinson died trying to save him, police said yesterday.

Meanwhile, officials with PSE&G were struggling to understand how and why the power line, which is supposed to be 40 to 60 feet off the ground, had sagged to within 734-feet of the ground.

The two 19-year-old township mien were electrocuted about 4:30 Wednesday during a rock-climbing excursion at Cradle Rock, located beyond the end of Province Line Road, police said.

Both men appeared to have been drinking before the accident, police said.

“It appears there was some (alcohol) consumption on their part. At this point, we don’t know how much,” Lt. Michael Chipowsky said yesterday.

An empty beer can was found in one of the victims’ backpacks, while a second partially consumed can was found near the victims’ bodies, police said yesterday.

Combs’ pickup, found about 100 feet from the accident scene, had no alcohol bottles or cans inside, police said.

A PARTIALLY empty fifth of vodka was found about 1,000 feet from the accident scene, but it had not been determined yesterday whether the bottle had belonged to the victims. Detectives have dusted the bottle for fingerprints, police said.

Results of toxicology tests to determine the victims’ blood-alcohol levels are expected to take several weeks to obtain, he said.

Chipowsky said evidence from yesterday’s autopsy indicated that Combs “had grasped” the live Public Service Electric & Gas 26,000-volt line with his right hand. Fingers on Combs’ right hand had been burned off and severe, blackened, burn marks were visible over the remainder of his right arm.

Evidence at the autopsy was “consistent” with Hutchinson trying to push Combs free, Chipowsky said.

“He died trying to save his friend,” Chipowsky said.

Hutchinson was a volunteer firefighter with the Hopewell Fire Department.

PSE&G spokesman Neil Brown said the utility does not yet know why the power line had sagged.

A porcelain insulator that held the line to the top portion of the utility pole was broken, slackening the power line. Brown said.

Another power line and a telephone line were also attached to the utility pole but were completely attached and were not sagging, police said.

“It appears that the problem with the line happened recently. We do not know why the insulator was broken,” he said.

THE INSULATOR was removed and will be sent for laboratory analysis.

The sagging wire would arc only within a maximum of 1 inch from the wire, so PSE&G officials said they knew that at least one of the victims had to come into direct contact with the wire.

Chipowsky confirmed that the victims “could have walked underneath the wire” without coming into contact with it.

“This is a terrible tragedy, and a highly unusual accident,” he said. “It happened in an isolated area where few people go.”

Electricity to the wire was shut off after the accident. Police posted an officer at the site yesterday who will remain there until repairs to the pole are completed, Chipowsky said.

The area where the accident happened is popular not only with rock climbers, but also with hunters.

Chipowsky said the remainder of the line appears unaffected and safe.

“We are not telling people to stay out of the area once the repairs are made,” Chipowsky said.

The PSE&G line runs from the Lawrence switching station to the Princeton substation, Brown said. Officials checked the length of the wire and found no other sags or problems along the route, he said.

It was not immediately known when the section of wire at the accident scene had last been visibly checked, Brown said.

“WE ARE STILL investigating,” he said.

Electricity flowing through the line to homes was not affected by the sag, so crews were unaware there was a problem before the accident, Brown said.

In the 12 years that Brown has acted as a spokesman for PSE&G, he said he has never heard of a similar accident happening.

“We are all extremely saddened and send our condolences to the families of the victims. This may sound hollow, but we plan to do whatever we can to determine how and why this happened and make sure that nothing like this happens again,” Brown said.

In December, 85 miles of PSE&G wires were downed throughout the state in a powerful storm and no injuries were reported, he said.

“Something like this is so very rare, but even one instance is too many,” Brown said.

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

Combs worked for K.P. Burke, a Pennington-based builder. He was a rock climber and a skilled boat racer.

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, friends said.

Smoke sparked from a brush fire that was created when the two men were killed was seen by a PSE&G crew member working atop a pole on an, unrelated problem about a mile away on Province Line Road. He called police and fire crews believing it was simply a small fire. The grisly discovery of the bodies was made by arriving fire crews.

The property where the accident happened is owned by William Roth of Princeton Township, police said.

Staff Writer Mark Perkiss contributed to this report.

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