Editor’s Log: Tragedy Can Create Positive Change

As an industry, we talk a lot these days about the importance and value of damage prevention. Safety is included in the conversation. Accidental deaths in the construction industry, particularly the underground segment, have fallen sharply over the past decade.

The significance of that accomplishment cannot be taken for granted. Few of us have witnessed the effects of sudden, unexpected death. Until that happens, it is difficult to truly perceive impacts.

That’s not the case for PG&E’s Nick Stavropoulos. Coming over from National Grid, Stavropoulos joined PG&E about one and ½ years ago as vice president of gas operations, responsible for the maintenance, construction and restoration of PG&E’s gas transmission and distribution systems.

PG&E has been a company struggling to recover from the turmoil of a 2010 disaster in California when the San Bruno pipeline explosion killed eight people and injured dozens of other, destroying 75 homes in the process.

In a presentation at the recent Pipeline Opportunities Conference in Houston, Stavropoulos told the audience that PG&E had “made it our mission to become the safest gas company in America.” Then he backed up that bold statement with some amazing statistics about accomplishments in safety-related areas over the past year.

But why is safety and damage prevention so important to him? Why would he want to move cross-country to a company reeling in a crisis mode? His pivotal reasoning was based on another terrible accident. Stavropoulos and his wife experienced a tragedy when their 26-year old daughter choked to death in their arms. As he tearfully related the event, he admitted that the incident caused his family to lose “a little bit of our faith.”

But an opportunity to restore that faith through action quickly emerged when PG&E came calling for a leader to reconfigure and refocus their massive gas operations – and to create a better, safer company. Convinced of PG&E’s sincerity and having a personal understanding of the pain of loss suffered by the families of the eight San Bruno victims, Stavropoulos embraced the opportunity.

He encouraged people to reflect upon “what you can do at your companies so that what happened at PG&E doesn’t happen again.”

Seeing death up-close and personal fundamentally changes people. Back in the early years of my career when I was a newspaper reporter and editor, I too witnessed death up close. I still vividly recall the incident that changed my careless habits forever.

I was with the police chief when a call came in of a major, two-car accident on the outskirts of town with multiple deaths. The accident had occurred at dusk so when we reached the site, portable lights and headlights cast an eerie series of shadows across emergency crews as they were just beginning to remove bodies from the twisted wreckage of what used-to-be two pick-up trucks.

And then we saw a horrific site – emergency workers were pulling children out of one of the pick-ups. First the body of a six-year old little girl was laid out on the cold, dark asphalt followed by her eight- and ten-year old sisters. Next was their mother, six-months pregnant (the fetus had died instantly as well). And finally, the family dog was laid out in the row of bodies.

As we watched the jaws-of-life try to extract the dead body of the driver of the other vehicle, the story began to emerge. A husband and wife were taking a Girl Scout troop on a camp-out. The husband was driving a large van with seven girls while his wife was following in their pick-up with supplies and daughters. A drunk driver almost hit the lead van. The husband spun off to the side of the road. He and the seven Girl Scouts watched in horror as the drunk did a torpedo run into the family pick-up. They saw their friends and family die.

And while I readily admit that I did my share of ill-advised, liquor-related mischief in my younger days, since that accident more than 27-years ago, I never drink and drive and I’ve consistently advocated alcohol and drug testing. Viewing those bodies lying in a row on the asphalt fundamentally changed me. Just as the death of Nick Stavropoulos’ daughter change him.

Stavropoulos asked the question to himself after his tragic experience: where do I go from here? He got his answer and is making a powerful case for reform at PG&E as well as setting a positive example for all people in the underground construction and rehabilitation industry. We can only hope that our industry will take such stories to heart without suffering the brutal examples of death.

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