Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Moment of Stray Voltage, and a Life Upended


By JIM DWYER
About New York
The New York Times
August 8, 2007

It was one of the muggiest days of the summer a decade ago. Philip Vanaria had gone for a walk in Greenwich Village, where he had lived most of his adult life. A friend wanted ideas for his birthday, which was coming up. At the corner of Hudson and Morton Streets, he called her from a pay phone.

“Hello,” she said.

Something jolted Mr. Vanaria’s elbow. Then it shot into his arm. Waves of pain ran along his arm. He nested the phone on his left shoulder, cranked his ear down.

“I said, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ ” he recalled this week.

He was just about to turn 47, the hour of life when the body becomes a permanent suspect in acts of treachery. To calm himself, Mr. Vanaria reached for one of the posts next to the phone, and gripped it. He screamed. Someone was shooting him dead, a machine gun, it was the tail end of an era of drive-by killings, he was being riddled with bullets. He looked into the street to see his murderers.

No car. No gunmen. No one.

Then he realized that he could not let go of the post. Panic and pain ripped through his body. His arm fought with his fingers, which were locked onto the post by an invisible force. He unclenched his grip and pulled away.

A man stood nearby. “What’s happening?” he asked Mr. Vanaria.

“You don’t understand,” Mr. Vanaria said. “I was being electrocuted.”

In a daze, Mr. Vanaria walked away. Who do you tell? The police? The Fire Department? He walked to the firehouse of Engine 18 on 10th Street, spoke to a battalion chief, who brought a crew to the corner. Someone touched the phone with a metal tool, and it sparked. The firefighters cordoned the intersection and called Con Edison. The electricity was measured at 90 volts.

The fire chief urged Mr. Vanaria to go to the hospital. Instead, he wandered up to St. Francis Xavier church on West 16th Street. Later, he went to St. Vincent’s. They asked him his date of birth. It took him a while to come up with it.

He had, he learned, suffered a brain injury. He had literally been fried.

“Those first five years were really, really dark,” Mr. Vanaria said. “I wouldn’t call it attention deficit. It was a collision of thoughts, like a car crash.”

He had to give up his job teaching third graders at a parochial school. He stopped dancing in clubs. He used to draw, but felt that his sense of shape and color had seeped away.

He sued Con Edison, which, it turned out, had installed a high-voltage vault beneath the pay phone at Hudson and Morton Streets. The utility had put a pump in the vault to clear water out; the pump burned out, but because it was not equipped with a circuit breaker or a fuse, electricity passed to the pump, then to a drain pipe, a metal grate, up to the telephone and into Philip Vanaria’s body and brain.

There was no question that Con Edison had been negligent, a judge found; only the amount of damages was at issue. The jury awarded Mr. Vanaria $1.9 million. The circuit breaker would have been a few dollars.

HE watched, as the years went by, the outcry when a carriage horse was killed after stepping on a charged manhole. Dogs hopped over electrical hot spots on the street. Jodie S. Lane, walking her dogs in the East Village, was killed in January 2004 when she stepped on a metal service box that had not been properly insulated.

Mr. Vanaria testified at hearings on the dangers of badly maintained utility wires. Some people used the term “stray voltage,” but then engineers would say there is no such thing: Electricity does not escape from a properly maintained system.

After Ms. Lane’s death, Con Edison pledged to spend millions of dollars to find spots where electricity was leaking. Yesterday, people injured in the steam pipe explosion last month said they intended to sue the utility.

Mr. Vanaria lives alone, writes fluid letters in perfect penmanship, and steps carefully through his days. “Ten years this month. I’m better. My attention skates at times,” he said. “I don’t read books, but I still buy them like crazy.”

He has not returned to work. Occasionally, he goes to a club on Sheridan Square. “My doctor says dancing is the No. 1 activity to combat Alzheimer’s,” he said.

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