Heith Konecny was perched on an overpass outside Mullinville, Kansas, taking photos of electric system damage wrought by a January ice storm when he saw a power pole toppled over railroad tracks.
Konecny was about to line up the shot, but then, on the horizon, he spotted lights closing in on the pole.
“The lights got closer, and then I realized it was a train heading down the tracks, straight towards the pole,” said Konecny, since 2007 a supervisor of metering technology at The Victory Electric Cooperative in Dodge City, Kansas.
Konecny ran back to his truck, called dispatchers to alert the railroad and then headed to the nearest intersection.
“I drove to the next crossing and turned on my flashers” to warn the engineer of the BNSF Railway train.
It can take a train a full mile to come to a complete stop, even after the engineer applies the brakes. The locomotive stopped about a quarter-mile from the downed pole.
“That train could have barreled through the pole. Had Heath not been in the right place, at the right time, it could have been a dire situation,” said Jerri Imgarten, the co-op’s manager of marketing and communications.
“It ended up stopping, but I don’t know whether it was because of me or operations,” said Konecny. “It was a locomotive and it didn’t have cars attached to it. So maybe it was out scoping damage on the tracks. And a signal would have sensed something on the track and it would have triggered a red light,” alerting the train to stop.
Konecny’s adventures didn’t end there. He submitted the photo to a co-op contest and wound up taking first prize—two free large pizzas for him and his crew.
Imgarten and her team had thought up the contest as a way to generate photos for social media. “Visual elements work really well to show the extent of damage and how hard crews work to get members’ power restored,” she said. “But we knew it would be hard for us to go out in the field take photos of the damage.”
Because the co-op had advance warning of the storm, Imgarten and her team had time to come up with a plan. With a free pizza lunch at stake, linemen texted or emailed photos of storm damage; co-op communicators across the country judged the entries.
Konecny’s dramatic, fog-shrouded photo, with train lights visible through a crossarm brace, won by a single vote.
“We were thinking the photo contest would be a great way to involve the linemen and engineering personnel in the co-op’s communications efforts, but we never dreamed it would help prevent a potential train derailment,” said Imgarten.