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Deepwater Horizon

The power is out, and people are worried.

The streetlights have gone dark, and the traffic signals flicked off. Hospitals and data centers have stopped humming as emergency generators groan to life. Across the region, everything — cars, transit, homes, and businesses — is at a standstill. Technicians monitoring the grid confirm it is a major outage. With millions of dollars in lost time on the line, it needs to be identified and repaired as quickly as possible.

Bill Reimels lives for these moments.


Bill Reimels approaches a work site in a helicopter. All images via Deepwater Horizon/Participant.

As part of a team responsible for maintaining and repairing power lines and transformers across the state of New Jersey, Bill Reimels' work needs to be done efficiently, correctly, and quickly. The company he works for, PSE&G, helps keep 1,200 miles of electrical transmission lines running smoothly — making sure cities from Woodbine to Wantage have consistent, reliable power.

The work he does isn't for the faint of heart, either. It takes electrical know-how, a calm demeanor, and the ability to solve complex electrical problems next to a high-voltage power line while sitting on a small seat off the side of a helicopter hovering hundreds of feet in the air.

Yes, you read that right. Watch the video below to see Bill in action:

Before he started working live lines, Bill climbed power transformers for 11 years. His new job takes him even higher — but he says it's well worth the risk.

"People used to ask me all the time — how do you do that?" Bill said. "It's just like anywhere else; you get used to working up there. You just watch where you put your hands and feet."

Bill hard at work.

That latter part is an understatement. Most long-distance high-voltage power lines in America carry a load between 155,000 and 765,000 volts, and touching even a spark could be deadly. At PSE&G, Bill is part of a huge team that constantly monitors and preventatively repairs lines so that big accidents where folks are really at risk are few and far between. That's crucial because people doing this kind of work risk electrocution, burns, and falls every single day, although all are relatively rare.

As for Bill, he said he's had a couple scares but nothing serious. That's amazing considering he does most of his work sitting in a chair hundreds of feet above the ground, held in place by a harness clipped to his back and a small sturdy seatbelt across his lap. That lap belt, Bill shares, is a new addition to their safety set up. "It's really for the pilot's comfort. If he needs to make a rough landing for whatever reason, he wanted to make sure we were safe and wouldn't bounce up into the rotor," he says. "I trust in my team to keep me safe, and make sure these lines are safe, too."

Bill's work isn't always about power lines. Sometimes he gets to help with other valuable work: helping biologists tag baby eagles.

"I love bald eagles, and as it turns out, we have 20 nests on our lines," he shares enthusiastically. Because bald eagles are protected in the United States, they can make their nests anywhere they want, and the helicopters on Bill's team generally give them and their nests a wide buffer when they pass by — at least 500 to 1,000 feet.

But sometimes they have to get a little closer, like when they're assisting biologists in identifying and tagging baby eaglets.

"We'll help gather them from the nest and take them to the biologists to do their thing, then we help put them gently back in the nest," he says. "It's pretty amazing, getting to hold my favorite animal in the world in my hands."

Ultimately, this work — challenging, thoughtful, and outside — is perfect for Bill. He couldn't imagine doing anything else.

"I'll never forget the first time I got to fly in the helicopter," Bill said. "I got to jump on a ride to check out a transformer. It was usually an hour and a half trip by car, but it was only 10 minutes by helicopter. It was such a thrill." He paused to think.

"Now it's kind of old hat," he laughed.

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