CHICAGO — In the final moments of his life, Robert Zulauf administered CPR to his nephew and ordered bystanders to move away from the deadly power line that arced and bowed just a few feet from the Circle K parking lot in Sterling.
Flames danced around Jordan Zulauf as thick black smoke billowed and his uncle worked to save him. Above them, a ComEd line crackled and hummed so loudly it could be heard over both an approaching police siren and the screams of horrified onlookers.
“911! 911!” Robert shouted to officers as they arrived on the scene. “I’ve got one hurt!”
Robert took a few steps toward his white utility truck that's he'd parked along the road so he and Jordan could work on the telecommunication lines several feet below the ComEd wires. The bucket was extended about 6 feet off the ground and, according to one witness, a wire was touching its long metal arm.
Robert touched the truck. His body went rigid, he fell to the ground and instantly burst into flames.
Video from a police dashboard camera and from a witness shows the scene where Robert, 32, died and Jordan, 23, was severely injured after also being electrocuted. He was flown to Rockford where doctors amputated his arms and he remained in a coma for several weeks.
At the time of Robert's death on Nov. 8, 2016, his wife, Jeanette, was 7 months pregnant with their third child. Besides her two school-age children, she soon would become the primary caretaker to a newborn and an adult nephew who had to relearn even the most basic skills.
“Robert knew what he was doing. There’s no reason this should have happened,” she recently told the Chicago Tribune. “I keep asking, how does a man who put safety above anything else related to his job end up electrocuted?”
It’s a question that both ComEd and the state agency that oversees the power company have fought hard against answering.
The Illinois Commerce Commission — the government entity charged with ensuring reliable, efficient and safe utility services to the public — did not conduct its own investigation of Zulauf’s death. Instead, court records show, regulators relied upon ComEd’s findings, a tightly held report in which the utility apparently cleared itself of wrongdoing.
The ICC has refused to release records related to the power company’s investigation to the Tribune, citing a state law exempting the documents from the Freedom of Information Act. The agency also resisted turning over those records in lawsuits filed by both Jeanette and Jordan Zulauf until a Cook County judge ordered it to do so this summer.
While the judge prohibited those records from being shared with the public, ComEd engineers testified that one of several wires connected to the pole was not properly insulated. It’s a potentially fatal, easily avoided flaw that has plagued power lines across the state for years, but a Tribune investigation found the ICC has done little to ensure that politically influential power companies address the public safety risk.
Everything seemed to be going Robert Zulauf’s way when he and his nephew Jordan made the 90-mile drive from their suburban West Chicago home to Sterling that day.
Just a week earlier, Robert's 9-year-old daughter, Delanney, won the league championship with her softball team, and his beloved Cubs lifted a World Series trophy. He had taken the train into the city with son Dylan, 6, and Jordan to watch the victory parade.
Robert and Jordan, who had recently become Comcast subcontractors after years of working on cellphone towers, left for Sterling at dawn. Before walking out the door, Robert grabbed the lunch Jeanette prepared for him the night before — three crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, each one with a small bite in the corner meant to be a love note from her.
He and Jordan were installing new fiber optic cable around noon, working on a Comcast-controlled line that leased space on the Commonwealth Edison pole. The Comcast wire was roughly 6 feet below three 12-kilovolt power lines, ostensibly a safe enough distance from the dangerous high-voltage wires.
But the guy wire — the metal line that runs diagonally from the pole to the ground to provide support — was loose and made contact with a ComEd line, electrifying the portion of it below the insulator and posing a serious threat to those nearby.
If the guy wire had been installed according to state code and federal guidelines, an insulator would have been placed below the lowest power line to stop it from electrifying portions of the guy wire closest to the ground. Instead, the insulator had been placed above the 12-kilovolt line, allowing a deadly level of electricity into the wire and putting the Zulaufs at risk.
Jordan was the first to receive an electric shock, although it’s unclear what he was doing at that time. He has no memory of that day, and witness accounts do not provide a clear picture.
A U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation concluded that he was in the bucket when the wire made contact and the electric shock caused him to fall out of it. A witness who was pumping gas at the Circle K, also saw Jordan fall from the bucket.
Robert immediately began CPR on Jordan and yelled for someone to call 911.
When Robert touched his truck after authorities arrived, the electrical current that shot through his body was so strong his hard hat flew off and he burst into flames, according to police reports. His charred remains primarily were identified through his earrings and the nonconductive silicone tradesman’s ring he wore as a surrogate for his white gold wedding band.
“That’s how safety-conscious he was,” Jeanette said. “He wouldn’t even wear his wedding ring when working because it could be dangerous.”
Court records show ComEd blames the Zulaufs for the electric shocks, arguing one of the men purposefully detached the guy wire and caused it to come in contact with the power line. In the same documents, the utility did not explain its reasons for believing the men tampered with the wire, and stated only that its “investigation continues.”
Zulauf family attorneys deny either man did it, saying they were both safety-driven contractors who wouldn’t have put their lives at risk.
Even if Robert or Jordan had detached the guy wire, properly placed insulators would have minimized the danger. In depositions taken as part of the case, two ComEd engineers acknowledged at least one Sterling insulator was improperly installed in 1968 and remained that way.
“Am I correct that the subject guy wire that was involved in the occurrence that did not have the proper placement of insulators was in violation of Illinois Code … for 48 years?” Jeanette’s attorney, Stephan Blandin, asked during one deposition.
“Yes, I believe that’s true,” ComEd engineer David D’Hooge answered.
A second ComEd engineer also testified that the guy wire had been improperly installed and never corrected, according to depositions obtained by the Tribune. The acknowledgment stunned — and angered — Jordan Zulauf’s attorney Robert Bingle.
“I was astounded to have employee after employee of ComEd confirm in depositions that ComEd installed this guy wire in 1968, in violation of all applicable safety codes and their own internal mandatory specifications, and never rectified this dangerous safety condition over 48 years,” Bingle said.
A ComEd spokesman would not discuss the insulator’s placement or the danger it posed. The men received the electric shocks because the guy wire became detached from the ground and anything that happened afterward is irrelevant, spokesman Paul Elsberg said.
In images captured by Google Street View in 2013 and frequently referenced in depositions, the insulator on one of seven guy wires supporting the pole is clearly above the lowest 12-kilovolt line. It’s unclear whether anyone at the power company realized the insulator’s placement violated both state code and federal guidelines.
The ICC told the Tribune it had no record of any code violations involving that specific pole. ICC inspectors file reports about noncompliant guy wire insulators if they notice them in the field, but officials say the number of such inspections has dwindled in the past decade.
In a deposition taken as part of Jeanette Zulauf’s wrongful death lawsuit against ComEd, Harry Stoller, former director of the ICC’s safety and reliability division, said budget cuts forced the ICC to cut back on the number of inspections around 2007.
The agency now has just two engineers responsible for millions of poles.
“There isn’t a utility in the state while I was running the engineering section that got a thorough examination ever, because I didn’t have the engineers to do it,” former ICC engineering manager Philip Roy Buxton, who retired in 2015, said in a deposition. “I didn’t have the travel budget to do it. It couldn’t happen.”
Records show the inspection cutbacks came even as ICC officials knew tens of thousands of poles across the state may have been improperly insulated.
Despite being obligated to investigate all fatalities and serious injuries under state law, state regulators deferred to ComEd regarding Zulauf’s death.
Greg Rockrohr, a senior electrical engineer in the commission’s safety and reliability division, said in a deposition that the ICC did not make an independent inquiry into the Sterling incident and relied primarily upon ComEd’s records and Sterling Police Department reports.
It is unclear how many of ComEd’s utility poles throughout Illinois could have insulator issues. ComEd would not provide those numbers to the Tribune, although the utility said it voluntarily conducted additional training following the accident to ensure inspectors continue to properly examine equipment, including guy wires and insulators, across its entire 11,000-square-mile region.
The ICC did not conduct its own utilitywide inquiry to determine whether a larger problem exists, although it did request a summary from ComEd about the other potential insulator risks.
The taxpayer-funded agency refused to provide ComEd’s summary of those insulator risks, citing their confidentiality agreement, a reflection of a state policy that has long put utility companies’ interests over transparency.
“The public should have access to all nonconfidential information about the tragic Zulauf accident,” ICC spokeswoman Victoria Crawford said in statement. “As to the confidential information in the commission’s investigation file … the General Assembly chose certain public policy objectives that weigh in favor of maintaining confidentiality over certain materials.”
Indeed, state law allows the ICC to be susceptible to “regulatory capture,” a scenario that occurs when a government agency created to act in the public’s interest instead advances the interests of the sector it is meant to regulate.
In addition to exempting critical utility records from public inspection, state law also makes it a misdemeanor to provide information about any investigation conducted by a utility without a court order or permission from the ICC’s five-member commission.
In the Zulauf lawsuits, the commission fought against a court order to disclose documents and, in turn, mirrored ComEd’s position on the issue. The ICC initially refused to turn over records related to the accident and tried to stop the plaintiffs’ attorneys from interviewing current and former employees.
Commission attorneys argued the agency must keep certain ComEd documents confidential to ensure truthful communications with the utility.
“Historically, utilities have willingly provided information to aid the commission’s investigations, knowing that any confidential information provided will remain confidential and be protected from disclosure during civil suit,” said Crawford, the ICC spokeswoman. “Historically, these assurances fostered a candid and cooperative relationship between the commission and public utilities with the goal of public safety.”
Cook County Judge Moira Johnson rejected the agency’s argument, ordering the ICC to turn over the investigative records. The commission complied, although it already had instructed its current and former staff during depositions not to answer dozens of questions regarding ComEd’s findings or the state agency’s response.
Jeanette Zulauf’s lawyer suggested there was a more troubling reason for the ICC's secrecy. During a tense court hearing in mid-July, Blandin provided the judge with several news articles that he said offered the political motivation for the ICC and ComEd to get “in bed together.”
Blandin referenced stories from July 12, 16 and 18, although he did not cite the publications in which they appeared. On July 18th, the Tribune reported that FBI agents raided the homes of retired Alderman Michael Zalewski and former ComEd lobbyist Mike McClain in May. Both men are allies of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
According to the Tribune, authorities were seeking records of communications among Madigan, McClain and Zalewski related to attempts to get ComEd lobbying work for Zalewski after he retired in 2018.
Zalewski’s daughter-in-law, Carrie Zalewski, was selected by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to run the ICC. Carrie Zalewski, an attorney and engineer, worked for several other state agencies and was a regulator at the Illinois Pollution Control Board before being appointed to a 5-year term in March.
Specifically citing the family ties between Michael and Carrie Zalewski, Blandin urged the judge to be skeptical of the relationship between ComEd and the ICC given the current federal investigation, court records show.
“The point of the matter is this: There is an unholy alliance that’s taken place here between the Illinois Commerce Commission and Commonwealth Edison,” Blandin said, according to the transcript. “And they have stretched all credulity in trying to claim that these statutes protect them from disclosing documents that exist in this case … let alone the fact that the ICC didn’t do its job and investigate Commonwealth Edison in this case or, apparently, any other case.”
Assistant Illinois Attorney General Conor Desmond, who represented the ICC, called Blandin’s accusations “unsubstantiated” in a defense of the agency.
“The information submitted by Mr. Blandin concerning the chairman, her father-in-law, all this information is well beyond the scope of what the ICC is doing here today,” Desmond told the judge. “There’s simply no evidence at this time that the ICC is in bed with ComEd or whatever Mr. Blandin’s attempting to assert in this particular proceeding."
A month after Robert’s death, Jeanette, then 8 months pregnant, sat by her nephew’s hospital bed and delivered heartbreaking news as he awoke from a weekslong coma.
“You’ve been in an accident,” she told him. “They had to take your arms to save your life. And Uncle Robert’s in heaven.”
It would be a week before Jordan could fully comprehend and retain what she was telling him, so Jeanette made the 90-minute trip each day to explain what happened, over and over until he understood.
When he could talk, he asked Jeanette why it had to be Robert who died. He insisted it should have been him.
“Because that’s just how it is,” she told him. “Robert saved your life.”
Jordan spent several more weeks in the hospital and in a rehabilitation center, learning how to adapt to a life without arms, before he returned to Robert and Jeanette’s house, where Jordan had lived since Robert, his primary father figure, invited him to move in after he graduated from a Springfield high school 5 years earlier.
Robert believed he had an obligation to teach Jordan how to be a responsible adult and he rode his nephew hard. He got Jordan a job doing cell tower work alongside him, making sure he got up each morning, went to work, paid his bills and did chores around the house. He also enlisted Jordan to help coach Dylan’s youth football team.
After the accident, Jordan didn’t consider living anywhere else: He felt a responsibility to Robert’s family, which now included newborn Donovan.
“For the kids’ sake, one of us has to walk through the door,” he told Jeanette. “If it can’t be Robert, it should be me.”
The early days were difficult. With two school-age children and a newborn, Jeanette also had to help Jordan adjust to his new life. She and the kids helped him dress, eat and take care of basic hygiene. To be dependent on his 6-year-old cousin to go to the bathroom was sometimes more than Jordan could bear.
Meal times also could be a source of frustration, especially as he learned how to feed himself trough-style without hands. On many occasions, his plate would go crashing to the floor.
“When he got frustrated, we would just sit there and let that storm pass,” Jeanette said. “He would cry. He would get upset. … And we just dealt with it as it came.”
Jordan also has phantom limb syndrome, and often feels excruciating pain in hands that no longer exists.
Nearly 3 years after Robert’s death, Jeanette has assumed the life of a single mother, juggling a toddler, two tweens on traveling sports teams and the occasional part-time baby-sitting job.
Jordan helps around the house, handling laundry and pitching in at meal time. He also has found creative ways to help with Donovan, whether it’s using his own feet to help the boy put on his shoes or showing him things on his smartphone by tapping commands with his nose.
He attends his cousins’ games regularly, cheering on Delanney and Dylan almost as enthusiastically as their dad did.
“I have to,” he said.
In fact, the entire family moves forward for just the same reason. When the daily routine of work turned tragic in an instant, a wife and children found a future they never expected.
“The kids learned to say life isn’t fair. And it isn’t,” Jeanette said. “People asked how we do it, but there’s no good answer. We just do it because we have to.”