A Whitney man recently made a coast-to-coast trip, walking and taking rides along the way, to honor fallen line workers. Pictured is Curtis Helms, known to online followers as “The Bull Grunt,” at center with linemen along his journey. Helms made it from east coast to west coast in 20 days with the assistance of those within the power line industry.
Whitney man travels coast to coast to honor line workers
Curtis Helms, known as the Bull Grunt to online followers, has completed a walk from the east to west coast to honor and raise awareness for fallen utility line workers.
Helms lives in Whitney and works for Elite Line Training Institute out of Beaumont, a line safety and training company.
Helms’ idea was to walk from coast to coast in honor of fallen workers, raising awareness of the risk and obligation industry employees and family take when the job starts.
He received a sponsorship from Bevens company, a line worker safety equipment manufacturer. The company agreed to sponsor the walk in the form of donation to charities that support the industry.
Constructing new power lines or repairing existing ones can mean that line workers are away from their families for months at a time.
Utility line work is one of the most dangerous professions in America. Between 30 and 50 line workers in every 100,000 are killed each year. When man-made or natural disasters occur, first responders and line operators are first to head in the opposite direction of evacuations.
“When a hurricane is blowing in, line crews are going in while everyone else is evacuating,” Helms said.
He remembers line workers helping with body recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He helped restore power to pumps and neighborhoods following the storm.
Helms completed the journey on behalf of the National Sisterhood of United Journeyman Lineman (NSUJL) and the Fallen Lineman Organization (FLO). Both organizations reach out when serious injury or death affect families and line workers.
Helms chose to represent all power line workers, both non-union and union. The main difference is pay, retirement benefits and dues owed on a monthly basis. He has worked within the non-union portion of the industry for 23 years.
Helms started his journey on the east coast in Charleston, South Carolina. He decided to sleep overnight at the city’s aquarium and gave himself to the industry at midnight October 15.
Food and water from those within the line industry would be the only means to sustain himself for his trip.
He carried little more than a roller backpack with water, a coffee cup and a sign worn on his back as homage to fallen line workers.
Helms’ plan for the I Am My Brothers’ Keeper Walk Across America (IAMBKWAA) was to walk and only accept rides limited to 30 miles as long as drivers were industry workers or directly related to a line worker living or deceased.
He accepted a total of 94 rides and met countless more along the way. What started as a single worker’s journey became closer to the definition of a relay race as people across the line industry hurried to help Helms.
One driver drove over 1,000 miles for the chance to play her part in getting him to the west coast. She drove from Pennsylvania to Georgia to give Helms a 30-mile ride.
Others drove over three hours to meet Helms for a 30 mile ride. Out of all drivers, one had experienced the loss of a loved one on the job and the other knew a lineman that, while badly burned, continued to work in the industry.
He often chatted through video with workers whose wives or other family members were giving rides.
Once he strung his hammock between the elevator buckets of tree trimmer trucks parked back-to-back. Helms woke up to utility workers needing their trucks at 6 a.m. the next morning.
In Georgia and Arizona, his feet barely touched the ground. Unbeknowst to Helms, a Facebook page had been created with a tracking app to see where drivers were getting the Bull Grunt.
Industry workers who discovered Helms, what he was doing and why he was doing it jumped to set up rides.
The line work industry seems familial in nature as the outpour of support assisted Helms get across the country.
Families continue in the profession as it provides for families well and sometimes look at it as tradition; a risky, necessary duty.
Community outreach in Helms’s walk exemplifies this type of familial connection that line families across the United States have.
That connection’s nature is not unlike first responders and those who have served in the military together.
Although Helms had the support of people across the industry, the trip was not without its challenges.
Managing what little resources he was given proved to be a difficult task. Helms ran out of water on the first day.
This continued throughout the trip, although those who helped him get across the U.S. arrived in the nick of time on several occasions.
When he traveled through New Mexico, workers drove him farther north because of concerns about human trafficking in the southern half of the state.
As a result, Helms had to travel through the desert and the Navajo reservation to get through the state.
Temperature extremes and the lack of civilization on this leg of the journey were difficult to manage.
When employees from Power New Mexico heard about Helms’s goal, they invited him to their union meeting to speak about safety in line work. Company workers relayed him across part of the state.
The journey was catalouged via Facebook and the #IAMBKWAA hashtag. Video appearances from ride-givers and Curtis along the journey still grace the page. Many who gave Helms 30 mile rides offered to take him the whole rest of the trip. Helms refused. “Because it’s that next ride. It’s that next life, the next interaction, the next journey.”
Over the course of 20 days, Helms made it to Huntington Beach, California from South Carolina November 3.
A friend from the line industry paid to fly his wife out to the beach to surprise Helms at the end of the trip.
In the video, he falls to one knee before a long overdue embrace.
Recording his first steps in the Pacific Ocean, he smiles. “That’s the power of the power line industry,” he said, before thanking everyone for the help along the journey.
The National Traumautic Occupational Fatalities system (NTOF) estimated an average of 56.3 deaths every year per 100,000 line workers in 1994.
This year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 146 workers have died from electrocution from the beginning of 2017 to today. Fifty-four were in direct relation to power lines.
The average across the last two years has been roughly 50 utility workers per year.
A total of 1,891 workers have died from other causes, although this number includes line worker and construction fatalities including electrocution.