“Welcome back,” was what Coleman Austin waited to hear for eight weeks from his wife and family.
The general service technician had originally only planned to be gone for six weeks to help restore gas service to the more than 8,000 displaced families living in the Boston-area following the Columbia Gas explosions in September. But the work took longer than expected.
In those eight weeks, he missed Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner with his family, celebrated his birthday, and was away from his wife for their eleventh wedding anniversary. But for the 40-year employee at DTE Energy, and 25 other gas team members, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Our families know that utility workers are different than other types of workers,” Austin said. “We show up when times are extreme. When most people go inside because it’s too cold, or too hot, or the weather is bad. That’s when we’re called to step-up.”
The original 20-person crew left for Boston on Oct. 13 and after a long journey, they arrived on Sunday to board a docked cruise ship, their home for the duration of the mutual assistance efforts. The cruise ship was not an all-inclusive, fully stocked getaway. It simply had a coffee stand for the crew’s 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.
“People didn’t have homes. All the residents had taken up the hotels or were staying in campers in parks or these make-shift trailer parks while the gas was being restored,” Austin said. “We were there to get people going. The cruise ship was just a place to put up our feet and rest our heads after the 15-hour days.”
Each morning, the teams would make the 40-minute drive to the staging area to get their assignments for the day – everything from installing or connecting manifolds, to air testing lines to ensure pipe integrity. Then, they would get materials and head out. But no job was the same.
“We had to really come together as a team,” Austin said. “We had to design the work and pathway for each particular home and its layout. Everyone had different skills and we learned to work together to find or create solutions and decide the best way.”
Yet while the work was being done in an organized pattern, the frustration among the residents was mounting. It was Thanksgiving Eve and Austin and his team had just finished a seafood dinner when the call came to him and his partner for a rush job.
He recalled arriving to the home of woman who had the wrong size meter installed by another company who was assisting with the efforts. The day that Austin and his team arrived, she’d been expecting Columbia Gas and was irate about the mishap and lacked trust that it would be done correctly.
Austin reassured her that she could depend on DTE Energy. They got to work and didn’t quit until she had the right meter and could turn off her generator. By the end, she was bringing out cookies and Gatorade in appreciation.
“We knew we were called to the job because they could trust us to do it right,” he said. “When we got everything up and running, I looked at her and said ‘your life will go back to normal again.’”
In November, a second wave of DTE workers also came to switch places with some, but many people stayed on to finish the job. After all, this was the first team in our gas company’s history that we responded to out-of-state mutual assistance efforts.
Working with the same guys 24/7 meant that Austin was with a different kind of family – his work family.
“We have better relationships now. We rode and drove down with our partners, worked together side-by-side, day-in and day-out,” Austin said. “It was pretty much like having your wife with you the whole time.”
But on Dec. 16, Coleman Austin and the entire DTE crew came back in time to enjoy the holidays with their own families, friends and loved ones. Now, he’ll celebrate his anniversary with his wife and their friends, and make plans to vacation somewhere warm in 2019.
“We arrived the day after the ship docked and we left the day before the ship left. It was a long time there,” he said. “It feels good to be home and see our families again. Our time away made us appreciate what we have even more.”