Death by PG&E

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

A mistaken PG&E power shut-off in West-Point Housing Projects causes the death of a mama and poverty hero

by Byron Gafford/PNN

Barry's voice over the phone was nearly inaudible through his weeping, as he struggled to utter, "Byron,my mom's dead!"

Instantly, these four words reverberated through my ears and pierced my lungs. I choked on my breath as I snapped the phone shut. With a quickened breath and trembling pace, I staggered towards my car and headed towards Shirley's home. I was familiar with the drive because I visited my girlfriend countless times, but this time the streets stretched longer, and the red lights flashed more frequently. I refused to grasp the reality of Shirley's passing yet the pain that clenched my heart tightened its grip.

Emotions flushed my head when I finally swerved onto the Westpoint property. I approached the insufferable scene, decorated with red trucks, flashing lights, and black-suited men. Sobs too lodged into my throat as I stumbled out of the car. As my feet sped forward, my mind raced back in search of answers...

* * *

It was after work yesterday when I could finally check my voicemail.
"Hey Byron it's Shirley. I just got home from work, and can you believe that PG&E shut my power off? They made a mistake, they were supposed to shut off my neighbor's power, not mine. Anyways, I called PG&E's 24-hour service but they told me no one can turn it back on until tomorrow. Why do they call it 24-hour service? Well, call me back when you can."

If they can send somebody to turn it off, why can't they send someone to turn it on? Angered at PG&E's indifference, I hurried over to Shirley's home. When I reached her door I saw a gas generator her brother had just bought sitting by the television. I was comforted that although PG&E denied her services, Shirley would be kept warm tonight.

My teeth clenched and I tightened my grip on the steering wheel as I drove home. Still fuming from this clear injustice, newspaper headlines began to flash through my mind reporting the countless atrocities that have occurred due to the apathy of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).

My mind jumped from stories of contaminated water to power shortages to raging fires. Back in December of 2003, a fire blazed at a PG&E substation on the corner of Eighth and Mission Streets which later caused a widespread power outage. I remember reading an article where city Attorney Dennis Herrera had earlier warned this could ensue and after declared, "The evidence is clear that PG&E knew about problems that endangered public safety...and yet did nothing to fix them"(sfgov).

Why are those most affected by PG&E's reckless indifference some of the most vulnerable residents in our city?

In another close community, Bayveiw-Hunter's Point, there are extremely high rates of asthma and other illnesses directly linked to the PG&E power plant and US Navy's Hunter's Point Shipyard. A 2001 article from the Bayview and Greenaction also raises an alarming statistic, "In the United States of America, the highest incidence of breast cancer for women under the age of 40 is in Bayview Hunters Point."

The most difficult memory to try to subdue was a story from a friend at POOR News Network, Vivien Hain, staff member of POOR Magazine and a welfareQUEEN: In the 1990's in Sacramento, a couple and their seven children had their power shutoff by PG&E. Unable to obtain PG&E's limited services or access any other resource this family was forced to use candles to light their house. Vivien recalls, "One night when the father was out the mother was at home with their kids and they all burned to death, the mother was in bed with the baby, a few were in the bathtub, two were hiding behind the curtain and one had run outside, still burning. All 7 perished with their mother."

I couldn't fathom this terrible tragedy. In our own state capital, a family's power is shut off and children are left to burn alive. My mind raced back, did Shirley have any candles?

* * *

Barry's shaking voice rang in my ears as I dashed passed the policemen that morning. When I reached the open door, my lungs collapsed. My body jolted back, shaking at the sight of Shirley lying motionless on the floor. Her limp body rested next to the couch, with a gash on her head that resulted from her fall to the floor. The scene strangled me. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks. Still breathless, I gazed up through blurry eyes to see her brother speaking to another policeman in the corner of the room. Rancor and despair flooded my mind like a tidal wave.

I stepped outside to relieve my lungs but the policemen were quick to question me. Through my shortened breaths I gave them the account of the previous night: Shirley's phone call, PG&E's mistake, their refusal. Finally the coroner arrived. I walked back inside with him as he also questioned the events that led to Shirley's death. She remained untouched on the floor, broken and bloody, where was the aid?

"Can you get a blanket to cover her up?" The coroner asked in his plain, casual tone. I was shocked by his impassivity that paralleled that of PG&E's customer service. He had deemed Shirley's life an inconvenience and used me, her boyfriend, as a helping hand in "cleaning up."

"Hey, officer Johnson," the coroner called out, "she obviously died from the fumes. That gas generator was supposed to be placed outside. It was an accident. We will record her cause of death as negligence."

I jerked my head up, an accident? How could PG&E's blatant refusal to correct their mistake which led to the generator's poisonous gases be an accident? I looked down at Shirley for the last time, trying to swallow the realization that her death would never be sanctioned. Tears dripped onto the blanket that I placed over her body. I kissed her and covered her blood stained head; I froze, distraught at how many murders had been veiled under that one, corrupt word, negligence.

While the health of these citizens continues to seep away due to these dangerous toxins, these same residents are plagued by direct denial of PG&E services. Not only do they refuse to undo their obvious mistakes, but PG&E also sends out workers who are unfamiliar with the neighborhoods they "service." This can result in cases such as Shirley's whose power was mistakenly shut off and whose death is now deemed an "accident". Although Sarah Blackwell of the SF Bay Guardian has written, "PG&E has a long record of harassing internal whistle-blowers and reporters who dare to take on the giant company", in her 2002 article PG&E Corporate Criminal, Shirley's murder cannot go blanketed under the simple title of "negligence".



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