For O’Connell Electric, the contractor behind the cable installation, it was an opportunity to prove once again its competence and confidence in accepting unique assignments.
“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful [is that] whenever there’s an odd type of a project, we don’t shy away from [it],” said Victor Salerno, Chief Executive Officer, O’Connell Electric. “Jobs like this keep our workforce engaged and interested.”
In 1980, the contractor provided power for the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. For one of the venues, employees ran a power line to the summit of Whiteface Mountain, making use of a helicopter to complete the final segment. Since early 2000, O’Connell Electric has completed more than 15 wind farms primarily in New York state. “We were heavily into wind [power] before anyone else,” said Salerno, proud that the company is regularly ahead of the pack.
Wallenda hired O’Connell Electric to install and dismantle a 1,800-foot, 2-inch diameter wire cable across Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara’s three falls, and the most powerful by height and flow rate in North America. It drops a “meager” 173 feet. Originally, Wallenda was going to begin his tightrope trek on the American side at Terrapin Point, but that changed once he personally checked out the site, said Power Group Manager Michael Parkes. Wallenda realized he would only be crossing the gorge, which others had done before. After further evaluation, they chose a spot closer to the Canadian waterfalls which allowed Wallenda to “walk through the mist and get a little wet,” Parkes said. “No one [had] ever physically walked over the falls,” he added – until Wallenda
O’Connell Electric is a full-service regional electrical, power line and communications contractor headquartered in Victor, N.Y. It was founded in 1911, and has grown into one of the largest electrical contractors in the United States. Wallenda selected O’Connell Electric upon the recommendation of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1249 in Syracuse, which knows it to be a stable and reliable company. Tom Parkes, O’Connell Electric’s chief operating officer, quickly won Wallenda’s full confidence to support his dangerous mission.
Staging the feat, however, wasn’t without its challenges. The cable weighs seven-and-a-half pounds per foot. “The tensions that were needed to bring the cable up so there [was minimal] sag were extremely high – a lot higher than anything that is typical in this industry,” Michael Parkes said. “It had to be tensioned at about 60,000 lbs. Normally, you’re looking at 5,000 lbs. or less.” Ultimately, there was about 35 feet of sag in the line over the entire length. Because the tensions were so high, the equipment required to perform the work needed to be much larger than the standard gear. According to Parkes, there are only a handful of pullers and tensioners in North America that are capable of doing the job, and it was a bit of a struggle just to locate an appropriate piece of equipment.
Another complication occurred when the pulling rope O’Connell purchased to pull Wallenda’s cable over the falls got knotted and caught in a pulling block. “We had to use a helicopter to fly that rope across to the other side and the helicopter actually ended up taking off a little faster than we had expected once it latched on,” Parkes said. “Fortunately, where it damaged the rope, we were able to cut that section out and re-splice it onto the other section. We ended up having barely enough rope to actually do the job. It was one of the biggest challenges, but we got through.”
Other obstacles that occurred during preparation included working with the U.S. and Canadian Customs and Border Protection to get clearance for O’Connell’s workforce and equipment. They needed both to be able to move back and forth between countries on a daily basis for the entire week of the event. “Once we found and got in touch with the right people, things went fine,” Tom Parkes said. And once the equipment was precisely positioned on either side of the falls, it needed to be secured. “It was a struggle coming up with a means to anchor,” Parkes said. “They didn’t want any disturbance to the land. Ultimately, they allowed [Wallenda] to drill micropiles into the ground.”
Two weeks prior to the event, O’Connell Electric’s insurance company suddenly backed out of the contract – its policies did not cover stunts, it said in a terse statement. “I guess this would be a stunt,” said Salerno, who was nervous about the project from the get-go. “We had to quickly find coverage elsewhere and it wasn’t easy.” On June 15, the event commenced at 10 p.m. for prime time coverage across the country. It took Wallenda just under 30 minutes to walk the 1,800-foot line. “You didn’t see any anxiety or nervousness from him,” said Parkes, who was there to watch Wallenda’s show. “He’s been doing it since he was a little kid. He said, ‘A lot of people think that the linemen who go up and work on energized power lines day in and day out are nuts. I’m just walking a wire, that’s what I do.’”
Shortly after Wallenda finished, he approached his electrical team about another gig in May 2013 – the Grand Canyon. “He was very pleased with our services and our capabilities,” Salerno said. For O’Connell Electric, meeting challenges head on is the norm. It thrives on unique projects.