For ten years, I worked side by side with the men and women of the Philadelphia Gas Works Distribution Department. Every autumn, I would anticipate the dark chill of winter and the endless nights of chasing gas leaks and potential emergencies. In an effort to maintain a high level of public safety, many distribution workers would demonstrate heroic qualities not usually associated with the utility workers.
In the city of Philadelphia, there are 3,000 miles of gas pipeline that weave and intersect like a giant underground labyrinth that extends to all corners of the city and supplies 500,000 customers. This network, which was installed in the late ninetieth century and throughout the twentieth century, consists mostly of cast iron pipe with only 10 percent of this aged system recently replaced. With a preventive maintenance program that replaces only 18 miles of pipeline a year, emergency situations are bound to occur and I experienced one sooner than I expected.
About four hours into our shift, on an unpleasantly cold evening in January, I heard the dispatcher call our truck number over the radio. My co-workers and I had recently finished repairing a minor gas leak and were huddled around the heater trying to defrost from the chill outside. Our foreman responded, and we were issued an emergency call. I had been in crews that had responded to calls like this before, but nothing could prepare me for the experience that lie ahead.
Upon arrival, I could see the lights of police cars and fire trucks flashing and reflecting in all directions. Blasts of sound from pneumatic tools echoed off the flat fronts of row homes that resembled giant lockers lining a narrow corridor. I still couldn't see the opposite end of the street, but those sounds told me another crew...