In harm's way
It was another brutally cold February night, and Jim Garde's back was turned to traffic along South Stoughton Rd. as he worked on Madison Water Utility's 144th main break of the year. He didn't see the car that was careening toward him, past orange cones, barriers and flashing lights. It was only quick action by a fellow crew member – a yell and a grab – that alerted him moments before impact.
"The fact that I have a broken leg and I'm not in a wheelchair or dead – I owe it to my family at work," Garde said in an emotional speech before the Common Council two weeks after the accident. "We really are a family, and we're brothers, and we're always there for each other. It's never been more evident than a couple weeks ago."
Police would later determine that the driver who slammed into Garde's leg and a nearby Water Utility truck was intoxicated. But even though drunk-driving accidents in work zones are relatively rare, accidents in general are not. According to the Department of Transportation, from 2006 to 2011, there were an average of 1673 crashes, 770 injuries and 11 deaths a year in Wisconsin work zones.
At the Common Council meeting, where Madison Water Utility crews were recognized for their hard work during this winter's extreme weather, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin took a moment to talk about safety.
"I think this is an excellent time to emphasize the question of public safety in terms of all the public works employees for the city, the county, and the state," said Soglin. "They're going out in these unbearable conditions, which are incredibly difficult, and then have to worry about carelessness in regards to inattentive drivers..."
In Madison, careless drivers are nothing new. Reports come in nearly every year of drivers smashing into cones, flashing signs and equipment as water utility crews work in the middle of sometimes crowded streets. Some drivers just aren't paying attention, others are in too big of a hurry to slow down. Soglin says drivers often don't stop to think about the vital work crews are doing as they rush by.
"I think it's really important for people to understand that the air we breathe and the water that we get are just critical for the vitality and the safety of the City," he said. "This water utility and its staff have kept water flowing under the most horrible of circumstances."
Family at work
In some ways, the accident on February 15th only brought Madison Water Utility crews closer together during one of the toughest winters they've ever faced.
"We've been putting in 12 to 16 hour days. It's just been relentless," said utility leadworker Don Russell at the meeting. "Normally it's just main breaks and a few frozen services, but this has just been everything – the snow removal that we all do on our own, main breaks, frozen services. And everybody has really risen up, people doing duties that they don't normally do. We spend way more time with each other than we do with our families."
For Garde, the battle to recover from his injuries will go on long after the winter is over, but he'll have his fellow crew members to lean on during the road ahead.
"The love and support that I've received from my coworkers – my family at work – has been emotional, unbelievable."
To see what it takes to fix a water main break, take a look at the video below of Garde, Russell and their coworkers repairing a water main in February, 2013.