A veteran MTA electrician on sick leave stole a 33-ton crane truck from the rail yard where he worked and carved a mile-long trail of destruction through Elmont early Tuesday, snapping power lines and utility poles, and knocking out power for more than 6,000 residents, police and LIPA said.
"It's exactly like the kind of damage you get in a tornado," Matthew Cordaro, a LIPA trustee, said of the debris field on Meacham Avenue and other streets. "It's a path of utter destruction in a defined zone."
Joel Grasman, 51, of Elmont, was arrested by Nassau police after they responded to multiple calls of power outages and saw him walking away from the truck near the Southern State Parkway, about a mile from his Kirkman Avenue home. Police charged Grasman with criminal possession of stolen property in the second and third degree, reckless endangerment, criminal tampering, and criminal mischief.
He is scheduled for arraignment Wednesday in First District Court in Hempstead.
Grasman is a 23-year employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who most recently worked at the MTA's Jamaica Avenue yard near Jamaica, Queens, before taking sick leave, Nassau police and MTA officials said.
Police said Grasman went to the facility, at 129th Street and Jamaica Avenue, before dawn Tuesday for the purpose of "stealing welding equipment."
When he discovered the equipment would not fit into his vehicle, Grasman stole a 2013 Mack truck, equipped with a boom crane, to transport the stolen welding equipment, according to police.
Grasman raised the crane arm on the 66,000-pound truck as he headed south on Meacham Avenue toward his home on Kirkman Avenue near E Street in Elmont, police said. Along the way, the crane arm plucked and snapped utility wires like guitar strings as the truck dragged power poles and trees down in its wake. Minutes later, just before 4 a.m., power went out in Grasman's neighborhood.
"It's unbelievable," LIPA spokesman Mark Gross said of the damage, adding that it initially knocked out power to customers not only in Elmont, but also in Franklin Square and North Valley Stream.
Explosions and flashes of light from the ripped wires that he first thought were thunder and lightning roused Ruben Parra from sleep inside his Meacham Avenue home.
"I woke up immediately. I saw something flash. I saw the light pole went down," said Parra, a limousine service operator. "It was like lightning, explosions all over the place."
When he went out to the street, Parra said he saw the truck with the crane continue up the street . He also noticed the passing boom had ripped a power line from his home.
Police said Grasman continued east on Dutch Broadway, south on Corona Avenue, and other neighborhood streets, causing "extensive damage" over at least a mile of roads before the truck came to a stop near the Southern State Parkway.
Hours after the incident, Grasman's home remained cordoned off with police tape while the white MTA NYC Transit truck, its swinging boom arm still raised, sat on the side of an exit ramp to the eastbound Southern State Parkway at Corona Avenue. Nassau police cars encircled the vehicle.
A traffic light dragged down from above an intersection lay on the ground behind the truck, its wires still tangled in the boom.
In all, according to LIPA, 15 utility poles were knocked down, including two high-voltage transmission poles. Twelve transformers and 60 sections of primary and secondary wire were also leveled. A team of 75 line workers, 10 low-voltage workers and 10 survey workers was brought in to make the repairs, LIPA officials said.
Gross said meters were pulled off the sides of houses, while home connectors, known as service drop lines, were ripped out in some cases.
Nick Lizanich, LIPA's vice president of transmission and distribution operations, said some residents whose homes suffered severe damage will need to hire electricians before power can be safely restored. He said damage could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that the utility has put in a claim to recoup the cost.
Mark Sellitto, 37, who lives with his wife and 6-year-old daughter on Meacham Avenue, spent the early afternoon Tuesday sitting on his front steps with family and neighbors, watching LIPA crews work.
Sellitto said his family was jolted awake by a loud crash just before 4 a.m. It sounded like a plane crash, he said.
His power, phone and cable remained out of service through most of the day, but damage to his home, where some wires were dislodged, was minimal, Sellitto said.
"The key word would be overwhelming, but at the same time entertaining," Sellitto said.