DANVILLE — In 60 years, Dan Mushrush had never been to New Jersey before. And his first visit there this month wasn't about sightseeing.
Mushrush, of Gilman, supervised a crew of 12 Ameren Illinois linemen who helped restore power to hundreds of thousands of Public Service Electric & Gas Company customers in the Trenton-Princeton-North Brunswick area following Hurricane Sandy and a smaller storm a few days later.
The crew, from the Champaign, Paxton and Danville offices of Ameren Illinois, was gone from Oct. 29 to Nov. 14, and spent 13 long days replacing poles and lines.
"About the only sightseeing we did was we were up on a mountain and we went up and you could see the skyline of New York from there, about 40 miles away. That's about all the sightseeing we got to do," he said Monday. "We would start at 5 a.m. and work until 10 p.m. Now some of that was driving and eating meals and having safety meetings. But it was a lot of work too."
Most of the damage in the region where the 244 Ameren Illinois workers were assigned was wind-related, he said.
"It was like a bad wind storm. Where we were working there wasn't any flooding. It was basically trees falling on lines," he said. "You might have a 60-foot tree with a 2-foot root system. It doesn't take much wind to blow those over. That was the main problem, all those trees.
"But a few days later they had that nor'easter that dumped about 3 to 4 inches of snow — wet, heavy snow."
The worst part of the trip, he said, wasn't the weather or the storm damage.
"The driving was horrible out there. There are no left turns. It's not like NASCAR in New Jersey," he said. "You've got to turn right, turn right, turn right on those main highways. There's just a lot of traffic. The night the nor'easter hit it took us about 2 1/2 or 3 hours to get back to our hotel about 35 or 40 miles away. There was a lot of traffic and it was the first snow of the season. They drive a lot different out there than we do here."
By "a lot different," he means "a lot worse."
"The first night we were out there they had a lane blocked and I was talking to a police officer and I said something like, 'Man, there's a bunch of idiot drivers out here.' He said, 'They're horrible. They're not like this where I come from.' I said, 'Where are you from?' He said, 'New York.'"
On the other hand, the people were thoughtful and kind to the Ameren workers.
"A lot of people thanked us. The people were generous. I don't think I've ever been on a storm were people were so giving," Mushrush said. "The thing out there is a jug of Joe, a gallon of coffee. I think we got 8 or 9 of those while we were out there, just from regular people.
"We got more pop, water, coffee, cookies, doughnuts, bagels, pretzels. There were very few complaints, even at the end. They were just glad to see us."
The Ameren crews assembled every day at the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrence Township, N.J., and stayed at a nearby hotel that served them a hot breakfast and dinner and supplied them with box lunches. The hotel also had a laundry service.
Ameren Illinois will be reimbursed by PSE&G for all its employee costs, said spokeswoman Jenifer Hagen.
The work was tedious in the first few days because the PSE&G dispatchers were overwhelmed by the amount of work and the number of crews available, Mushrush said. On the first day, for example, there were questions about cutting off service where a live wire was resting on a billboard.
"We had to go through some hoops to get that done. One of their supervisors showed up and we found out that that was the circuit that the governor's house was on. That was the day that Obama was in. They were a little leery of letting us kill that circuit but once he saw what we had, there was no problem," he said. Ninety minutes later the problem was solved and power was restored.
Another day the Ameren crews waited for hours before dispatchers confirmed that power was off on a circuit that needed repairs.
"The guys were frustrated because they went out there to do the work, to get the lights on. But by the end of the storm it was better. They had things figured out a little better," said Mushrush, who has worked for the old Central Illinois Public Service Co. and Ameren Illinois for 35 years. "I can't imagine how bad it would be in the dispatchers' office after something like that."
He said he was especially proud of his crew for the financial donation they made to the storm victims.
"One of the guys said, 'You know, we're doing pretty good out here. We ought to pass the hat and make a donation.' We later found out that we had turned the lights on for the state headquarters of the New Jersey Red Cross and they called in and said they had partial service. My guys gave 300 dollars to the New Jersey Red Cross. That was their idea," he said.
Mushrush said he'd volunteer for storm repair work again.
"I got into this because it's something different every day. Well, this was really something different," he said. "There were a few people getting a little grouchy and I think that after 14 days I might get a little grouchy too. But 99.9 percent of the people were great. It was a good experience."