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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A mail carrier described to an Allegheny County jury “a ball of fire and plume of smoke” he saw in 2009 when a Hempfield Township woman was trapped under a 7,200-volt power line.

The letter carrier, Michael Thornburg, testified before jurors hearing a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday that he'll never forget the events he witnessed while completing his mail route in the West Hempfield neighborhood about 4:30 p.m. June 2, 2009.

“I saw a huge ball of fire, followed by a plume of smoke. There was fire, then smoke, then screams,” Thornburg said.

“Someone was screaming, “Help! Please help!” but I didn't know who was screaming,” Thornburg testified under questioning by West Penn Power Co. attorney Avrum Levicoff of Pittsburgh.

Thornburg was the first witness called by the utility company Thursday in its defense against a wrongful death lawsuit the family of the victim, Carrie Goretzka, 39, filed against West Penn Power Co. Her husband, Michael; their daughters, Chloe, 8, and Carlie, 6; and her mother-in-law, Joann, are seeking unspecified damages against the utility, which is owned by FirstEnergy of Akron.

Thornburg was called by the utility's attorneys to demonstrate the time line of the power line failure.

The family, firefighters and medical personnel who responded have maintained throughout the trial that the power line that fell on Carrie Goretzka remained energized for at least 20 minutes before utility crews manually turned off the power and pulled the wires off the woman.

But jurors heard testimony from numerous West Penn employees who testified that the line's fuse tripped within seconds of the failure, shutting off power to the line.

Joann Goretzka testified last week that her hands were burned and she was thrown off her feet by electrical current when she approached her daughter-in-law in an attempt to rescue her from beneath the burning line.

Company employees including West Penn engineer Garry Smyda, who completed the company's initial investigative report on the accident, said Wednesday company equipment showed the fuse tripped within seconds of the initial failure, shutting off the electrical current.

Thornburg repeatedly testified he witnessed a single “fire ball,” which disappeared into smoke.

After he heard the screams, Thornburg said he drove his truck “as fast as I could” to the Goretzkas' home along West Hempfield Drive.

Under cross-examination by the Goretzka's attorney, Shanin Specter of Philadelphia, Thornburg testified that as he stepped from the truck to rush to pull Carrie Goretzka from under the line, two firefighters who live in the neighborhood, Adamsburg Fire Chief Don Thoma and firefighter Tim Harper, both warned him to stay away because the line was still energized. He said the firefighters warned that nothing could be done until the power was shut off.

Under cross-examination, Thornburg testified that he knew the Goretzka family from delivering mail in the neighborhood for more than three years.

“Carrie was utterly fantastic with those girls. Those three were inseparable. ... She was always outside playing with them in the yard,” Thornburg said.

Jurors listened Thursday to testimony from Dr. Robert Niger Hampton, a research engineer from Georgia Tech, who explained a 2006 study on splice conductors used by utilities. Hampton's testimony was read into the record by West Penn Power Co. attorneys because Hampton was not available to testify at the trial.

Hampton's testimony, taken during a recent deposition, indicated that the tests demonstrated that splice connections similar to those along the failed line on the Goretzka property showed no performance improvement, including longevity, when they were wire-brushed prior to installation than connections that were never wire-brushed.

The Goretzkas maintain that the line connection outside their home failed because utility linemen did not wire-brush them prior to installation as the manufacturer recommends. Hampton's testimony contradicted testimony jurors heard earlier from Christopher Havlik, an engineer from the splice manufacturer, Hubbell Power Systems.

Havlik had testified that Hubbell's own inspection of the downed wire showed the line splices were not wire-brushed and likely caused the failure. He said failure to wire-brush the connections before installation allows oxides to gather at the ends, causing the line to heat and corrode there, and eventually fail.

The trial continues this morning before Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or

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