Ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But when you’re a PG&E troubleman trying to restore power on storm-ravaged Long Island, compassion sometimes trumps opportunity.
When PG&E Troubleman Jim Zack came to New York on Nov. 3, his job was to restore power. So it came as quite a surprise on Nov. 5 when he was invited to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Ringing the Exchange’s bell is a 110-year tradition, and the honor usually goes to a celebrity or corporate executive to honor a lifetime of achievement.
Zack, a 34-year IBEW 1245 member, was among a handful of PG&E employees chosen to represent all the utility workers who have worked to restore power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the devastating storm that slammed into New York and New Jersey on Oct. 29.
“I was pretty excited about it. I called my son, who’s a senior in college, and told him I got to ring the bell at the Stock Exchange,” Zack said. His son posted the news on Facebook “and the next thing I know I’m getting calls from everybody, asking ‘are you really ringing the bell?’ ”
The bell-ringing was scheduled for Nov. 8. In the meantime, Zack worked alongside fellow Concord Troubleman Hank Dickinson, restoring power to dozens of customers on Long Island. And they were doing it without much direction from the local utility, which was completely overwhelmed by the devastation to its system.
Although officials are still uncertain how many homes on Long Island have been simply washed away or damaged beyond repair, they know one cold, hard fact with certainty: about 200,000 customers were still without power on Nov. 8, due in part to a vicious nor’easter that had blown across the island the day before, bringing snow, misery and more outages.
“Some folks are feeling hopeless”
Zack has worked plenty of storms in his long career, but he said he’d never seen storms that left people without power this long.
“I’ve seen 8 or 9 day outages, but here it’s almost two weeks. Some folks are feeling hopeless,” he said. “There are so many residents without power—the utility here is just stretched too thin.”
But there’s no need to wait for someone to assign you a job, he said. The work is all around, always there. “People will come around the block and say, ‘Right around the next block my grandma’s out of power.’ ”
People are thrilled to see the PG&E trucks pull up. In some cases, Zack and Dickinson and the other troublemen in the field can fix the outages simply by resetting transformers.
“I would have $500 bucks in my pocket if I’d been taking the money these people try to give you. You have to work hard to get them to put it back in their pockets,” Zack said. “I finally started telling them that the look on their faces was worth more than any money.”
Some jobs—a broken pole in the backyard, for example—are too big for the troublemen. They have to explain that a larger crew will be needed. The residents are disappointed, Zack said, “but once you explain what’s going on they’re great.”
Just part of the job
For all the praise he’s getting from the local folks, Zack believes what he’s doing is just part of the job.
“I’m nothing special. There are thousands of guys out here just like me.” He’s putting in 16-hour days, sometimes more, but that’s nothing to complain about when so many people have lost so much.
“One guy told me he had water four-feet high in his house. Some of these people have lost everything,” Zack said. He also had heard about the utility worker who was killed a week ago in southwestern Ontario while working on a power line brought down by Sandy.
These were some of the things going through Zack’s mind when it came time to go to the Stock Exchange for the bell-ringing ceremony. He decided he just wanted to keep working instead.
IBEW 1245 Business Rep. Bob Gerstle, who’d traveled East with the PG&E contingent, was stunned when he came across Zack working an outage. Gerstle asked why he wasn’t at the Stock Exchange.
“I couldn’t leave with a clear conscience,” Zack explained. Helping restore power to the people of Long Island, he said, was more important than a moment in the limelight on Wall Street. Compassion trumped celebrity. He chose to remain on the job, doing what IBEW members do best—bringing back the light.
So if you happen to see a Facebook posting about Jim Zack ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange—well, he never made it. Sometimes you just have to answer to a higher calling, which is exactly what Zack and his co-workers are doing. And plenty of New Yorkers are the happier for it.
As for those 200,000 people on Long Island without power on Nov. 8? By the next day that number had dropped to 130,000.
Photos by Bob Gerstle
IBEW Local 1245 members working on Long Island.