AUSTIN, Texas (KETK) – Three families’ quest to ensure that what happened to their sons never happens again saw its final fulfillment Friday in Austin with the stroke of the governor’s pen.
Just a little over two years ago, the families of Will Brannon, 17, Heath Faucheux, 16, and Thomas Larry, 11, suffered the worst pain any family can – the deaths of three boys whose lives had barely begun. Compounding the already unimaginable pain was the knowledge that the boys’ deaths had been preventable.
Will, Heath and Thomas were Boy Scouts with Troop 620 of Hallsville. On a hot early August day in 2017, the three were part of a single troop camping trip on the lake. Will and Heath, both Eagle Scouts, were on a catamaran on the water with Larry, mentoring him in the Boy Scout way as he learned to sail.
Disaster – and tragedy – struck when the 30-foot metal mast of their boat passed under a low-hanging power line that stretched over that section of the lake. The 12,000-volt line arched and sent a sharp jolt through the metal mast.
Will died on the boat. Heath was thrown into the water, where he died. Thomas was rescued by Boy Scout troop masters who saw the incident unfold and paddled about 200 yards to the burning boat. He was taken to a Shreveport medical center, where he later died.
The questions began immediately. Why was a power line, and a low-hanging one at that, strung across a lake where so many East Texans spend their days boating? Who is responsible for ensuring power line safety, and what are the standards?
The questions seemed to have no answer. Worse, they had been asked before.
In 1982, less than a mile away from where the boys were killed, Brockett Irwin, a Longview attorney, was electrocuted after his sailboat’s mast came in contact with the same transmission line.
Steve Kattner, a survivor of that tragedy, and Irwin’s widow filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative, which operates those lines.
That lawsuit alleged the power lines were too low and that an emergency shut-off system failed to kill the line when the boat struck it, Kattner told KETK. The lawsuit was settled without a trial.
Irwin’s twin brother Thomas told KETK the boys’ deaths were unacceptable.
“If you’re going to have live wire over water, then box it off so nobody can get near it or raise it, one or the other,” Irwin said.
Upshur Rural Electrical Cooperative did its part to make sure those lines in particular would not be part of another tragedy. After a year-and-a-half-long process of study and work with the Army Corps of Engineers, the coop buried the line that killed Irwin and the three Boy Scouts earlier this year.
But that did nothing to answer the questions the boys’ deaths had raised. Harnessing grief to anger, the Brannon, Faucheux and Larry families were determined to change that.
The boys’ parents began working to address the lack of requirements through legislation. They started with the two men who represent their districts, State Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola, and State Representative Chris Paddie of Marshall.
On March 8, Paddie and Hughes filed identical bills in Austin, addressing power line safety. The two men, and the families, also began marshaling allies in their respective chambers, getting more and more members to sign on.
The work paid off. In May, the Texas Legislature passed The William Thomas Heath Power Line Safety Act and sent it to the governor’s desk for his signature.
The legislation strengthens power line inspection requirements by the utilities that operate them and increases transparency through reporting non-compliance issues to the state.
It requires electric utilities, including co-ops, to ensure that their power lines, when installed above Texas lakes, meet the minimum height requirements mandated by the national electric safety code.
Abbott signed the bill into law on June 14.
And on Friday, August 23, the governor held a signing ceremony, with the Brannon, Faucheux and Larry families present and Paddie and Hughes flanking him as he affixed his signature to the new law.
After the ceremony, the families issued a statement:
“Today we want to thank all the legislators and staff, government agencies, industry representatives and concerned citizens who worked together to make this a reality. Our utmost gratitude is given to Chairman Chris Paddie for his comfort in our personal grief, his dedication to our community and willingness to champion our cause. We also want to recognize Senator Hughes and Representative Dean for their efforts and support.
There are so many people too numerous to name who supported the grassroots campaign for the Act. Their involvement by making calls, distributing information, and praying made a world of difference and we are eternally grateful.
As we have said before, the William Thomas Heath PSLA is a victory for public safety but not a celebration. It is a change to law that makes industry more accountable. However, laws are only words on paper. Continued vigilance will be necessary to make sure those words are implemented and enforced.”The Brannon, Faucheux and Larry Families
Words to ensure safety for all Texans and their families, born of unspeakable tragedy on an East Texas lake two years ago.