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Hundreds of ComEd workers out East to help with Sandy damage

From left lead crew leader Tony Meji50 lineman John Grandfield 45 lineman Pete Jonites 50 all members ComEd crew based

From left, lead crew leader Tony Mejia, 50, lineman John Grandfield, 45, and lineman Pete Jonites, 50, all members of a ComEd crew based out of Libertyville working in Pikesville, Md. to help with Hurricane Sandy storm relief. | Courtesy photo

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Updated: December 30, 2012 1:23AM

Tony Mejia and his crew worked Tuesday to restore power in suburban Baltimore as rain fell, wind blew and temperature hovered in the 40s.

The Libertyville-based ComEd crew was just one group of many groups that headed east to restore electricity after Hurricane Sandy left millions of people in the dark.

About 700 Chicago-based ComEd employees and contractors were sent to Philadelphia and Baltimore to help sister utilities, PECO in Philadelphia and Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, Tyler Anthony, senior vice president of distribution operations for ComEd, said from Baltimore.

A caravan of dozens of trucks — including bucket trucks and a mobile command center — left Chicago Saturday morning. Traveling in that caravan was Pete Jonites, a lineman from McHenry who has been part of a handful of missions to help power different cities back up.

“You treat it like it was yourself — happening to you,” said Jonites, 50.

For lineman John Grandfield, 45, disaster relief is an opportunity to really show people the type of work he and his colleagues do.

“Sometimes you don’t feel appreciated and you come out to these situations and these people need help. … It makes the job of being a lineman, to me, it makes it feel like it’s something,” the Antioch man said.

“There’s men behind that light switch in your house,” Grandfield said. “When that light comes back on … we feel just as good as they do.”

And there’s also the thrill of being involved.

In the Midwest “we don’t get a hurricane. A hurricane is like ten tornadoes,” Jonites said adding, “It’s stuff I would have never seen if I wasn’t working for Commonwealth Edison as a lineman.”

No Illinois police, firefighters, doctors or other emergency personnel had been dispatched to help Tuesday afternoon, but that could change, said Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, which receives official requests for assistance.

“This isn’t going to be over in a day or two. There is going to be a longterm response and we’ll just continue to work with [other states] and see if there’s anything we can provide them.”

Jonites and Mejia were working Tuesday to restore power to a main line in Pikesville, a suburb northwest of Baltimore with about 30,000 residents.

Mejia, the lead crew leader, said the tree was “huge” and estimated it was “more than 10 feet around.” It had knocked down two utility poles and detached the power lines in several spots.

The crew had to move the tree, get the power lines out from under it, put them back in place and in working order before the power could be turned back on.

“We don’t just turn on a switch and get it back on. It takes a lot of steps so we can do everything safely,” he said, waiting for the dispatchers to give the OK to “liven the line back up.”

“We’re still not done. They don’t have power so we’re still not done here,” Mejia, 50, of Round Lake, said.

As of Tuesday evening, about 126,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric customers were still without power, according to the company. More than 200,000 had their service restored.

Heavy winds caused the most damage in the Baltimore area, Anthony said.

“It’s mostly poles and the overhead wires [that] come down caused by those wind gusts,” he said. “We’re not seeing as much flooding in the Baltimore area.”

All of the people who headed east volunteered for the assignment and are paid a “premium,” Anthony said.

The workers don’t know exactly when they’ll return.

“A lot of times we’ll move up the coast where there is still a lot of power outages,” Jonites said. “It’s just clean up here, move up.”

The crews work long hours — about 16 hours a day — but they said they like being able to help out.

“To pull down a street and see a total disaster area … [then] when you leave it’s all put back to normal and that’s such a fulfilling feeling,” Jonites said.

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