COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Nine-year-old Willie Wagner and a buddy were dropping rocks over the crumbling concrete railing of a hulking downtown bridge, watching the splashes in the drowsy Scioto River, when he suddenly slumped between a lamppost and a chain-link fence.

Willie had been electrocuted.

Nearly three weeks later, though, city officials cannot say exactly where the current came from.

A forensic consultant hired by the city to solve the mystery says he is confident he can identify the problem within about a week. But the boy’s family says answers are already overdue.

In the days after the May 22 accident, city workers detected no current on the surface of the fence or lamppost, despite at least four voltage tests. All wires and fuses associated with the lamp were inspected and found to be working and properly insulated.

“The issue that we are dealing with is very subtle,” said John Loud, the engineer heading the investigation for Exponent Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif. “There was no electric current present, yet we have clear evidence that someone was electrocuted.”

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 440 people were electrocuted in the United States in 1999, the last year for which statistics are available. Fewer than one in five of the deaths happened in public, with electric transmission lines the most common cause.

About 25 of the total deaths were caused by contact with pipes, poles or fences, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“I can’t think of another hazard that we come across in our daily lives that is as uniquely unforgiving and insidious as electricity,” said Michael G. Clendenin, executive director of the Rosslyn, Va.-based Electrical Safety Foundation International.

A steel plate energized by below-ground street lamp wiring was blamed for the death in 1988 of a barefoot 17-year-old girl in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The plate covered wires that had been poorly rewired during construction, police said.

A pedestrian died on a Cleveland sidewalk in 1987 when he stepped onto an energized metal plate near a bus shelter. A transformer carrying power for lights in the shelter was faulty.

In 1999, an electrical jolt traveled through a metal bus shelter in San Diego, killing a 20-year-old man. Investigators said a transformer was improperly grounded.

Willie died around dusk while walking home with a friend from the COSI Columbus science museum. Walking ahead of them on the sidewalk, the friend’s father, Tony Molter, lost sight of the boys for a moment and called to them to hurry up. Willie did not answer.

Backtracking, Molter saw Willie slumped motionless on the Town Street Bridge. “I just knew something was wrong,” Molter said. “The closer I got, the more scared I got.”

The boys had apparently tried to squeeze through a one-foot gap between the fence and the lamppost on the Depression-era bridge, which was slated for demolition in 2006. The fence had been put there to keep people away from the dangerously deteriorating railing.

An autopsy confirmed that an electrical jolt had killed Willie.

Since arriving in Columbus just over a week ago, Loud has reviewed evidence and interviewed the coroner, police, firefighters, witnesses and utility personnel.

Biomedical analysts at Exponent are trying to determine precisely where the electricity entered and exited Willie’s body. The city is paying Exponent up to $35,000.

Loud has refused to comment on any of his working theories.

Benjamin Coifman, a professor of electrical engineering at Ohio State University, said moisture in the sidewalk could have conducted electricity between the base of the lamppost, the fence or metal reinforcing bars in the concrete.

However, city officials said excavations to examine the two electric transmission lines beneath the concrete sidewalk revealed no defects that would allow moisture inside.

Willie’s mother, Tina Brown, said the information the city has shared with her has shed little light on her son’s death.

“I have a hard time breathing now,” she said. “I can’t even look at his picture. It shouldn’t have happened that way. He’s 9 years old. He didn’t even have a life yet.”

Greg Davies, a spokesman for the city utilities department, said: “I’m sure she’s frustrated because she doesn’t have an answer, and that’s our frustration, too. We’re working as hard as we can.”

On the Net:

Exponent Inc.:

Columbus utilities:

AP-ES-06-12-03 1410EDT

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