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Probe finds worn wire led to girl's electrocution at Missoula church

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Investigators have pinpointed the defective wiring that killed an 8-year-old girl on a church rooftop earlier this month, but cleared the church of any negligence in the tragic death.

Jasmine Flankey was killed July 4 on the roof of the Midtown Church at 1750 South Ave. W. The girl was watching a fireworks display with about 60 others, and was one of several children playing near a pair of rooftop air-conditioning units. Through a series of ill-fated circumstances, one of the units became electrically "hot" and the girl was electrocuted.

An investigation conducted last week by master electricians, city building inspectors and insurance representatives determined that Midtown Church was built to code. Church officials also followed inspection procedures and used licensed subcontractors during a remodel, according to Clay Ledbetter, general manager of Liberty Electric.

"They're not negligent in any fashion," said Ledbetter, who led the inspection.

Russ Smith, pastor of Midtown Church, said the circumstances leading up to Flankey's death created a "perfect storm."

Investigators found that the primary wire for a bank of fluorescent lights in the church's sanctuary runs through a soffit that also holds the building's air-conditioning duct work.

"Over the course of the last three years, somehow the duct work, through vibration, worked through the insulation of the wiring and was touching the hot wire, or the black wire," Smith said. "There are four wires that are all braided together, so the black hot wire had to be exactly on that spot. An inch or two in either direction and we might have been on a neutral wire."

When the circuit that powers the lights in the church's sanctuary is on, Smith said, the air-conditioning unit is electrified.

"On that night, the sanctuary lights had to be turned on, the air-conditioning unit had to be flowing, and the duct work had to be touching that specific part of the wiring," he said. "Then a person, in this case Jasmine, had to be touching the energized duct work and another piece of metal."

According to Ledbetter, once the air-conditioning unit was energized, there should have been a return path for the charge to trip the breaker; however, that never happened.

"That was one of the problems," Ledbetter said. "But what entity is responsible, I don't know. It's probably going to come down to the the city making a determination of liability, but I don't think that the engineers who wired the job are negligent. But something definitely had to change to ensure that this doesn't happen again."

To that end, workers rerouted the wiring for the sanctuary's light bank so that it runs away from the duct work, and installed a jumper device that causes any deviant charge to immediately trip the breaker.

After the repair was complete, Smith said he went onto the roof and put himself in Flankey's fatal position "to ensure the repair with my own life."

"This was a freak accident, but it could have been a far larger tragedy," he said. "We had entire families sitting on the same duct work, they just didn't happen to be touching another piece of metal. So Jasmine's death potentially saved a whole lot of people. She's a hero at this point."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or tscott@missoulian.com.

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