Amanda and Richard Di Donna never asked for Verizon high-speed Internet service at their Vienna home.
Even so, in March a crew working under contract for the company showed up in their back yard, digging along a public easement to lay fiber-optic cable that the company promised would bring lightning-quick computer connections to their neighborhood.
But the crew hit a problem -- literally. Workers dug into an apparently mis-marked power line running into their home, the Di Donnas were told later. The contact caused a massive power surge that shot through the house, shorting out every electrical appliance and melting almost all the wires snaking through their walls.
What followed was an ordeal to get their house and lives back in order that has not ended, the couple said. They spent more than four months in hotels and apartments with their 2-year-old son while repairs were underway. Their dog had to stay at a kennel. Amanda Di Donna spent the final months of her second pregnancy uprooted and gave birth about seven weeks before the couple finally moved back into their gutted and rebuilt house last month.
By their records, they still are owed almost $14,000 in repair costs and expenses by UtiliQuest, the company that mis-marked the electrical line and whose insurance company, they said, has paid more than $90,000 to repair damage related to the incident.
The Di Donna family's experience is perhaps one of the more spectacular examples of property and utility damage across the region as Verizon has laid new lines in much of suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. In all, the company is working in 15 states to replace its copper network with more advanced fiber-optic lines, said Harry J. Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon.
According to officials with regional utility companies, Verizon workers have hit water pipes 76 times in the past year in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. They have hit Washington Gas lines 288 times in Maryland and Virginia and hit Columbia Gas lines 27 times in parts of Virginia. Pepco and Dominion Virginia Power confirm their lines have been hit, sometimes causing power outages. Local governments have been collecting complaints from residents concerned about ruined lawns, wrecked sprinkler systems and torn-up driveways.
Some of the errors have been made by construction companies working under contract for Verizon. Others, like the one outside the Di Donnas' home, have been caused by other utility companies and their contractors marking their own lines incorrectly after they were alerted that Verizon was preparing to dig, as the law requires.
Amanda Di Donna said she believes that since the dig was a Verizon project, it should share part of the blame.
"Verizon is such a big company. You feel so powerless and small," she said. "They're just not concerned. . . . They let the small guy take the fall and essentially pass the buck."
Mitchell said the company is concerned. He called the Di Donnas' experience a "very unfortunate incident" but said the company's records show that UtiliQuest, a vendor hired by Dominion Virginia to mark the utility lines, was at fault and therefore is responsible for damages.
He said Verizon is committed to limiting damage caused by the 1,700 contractors burying lines in Maryland and Virginia, and the company employs dozens of inspectors to check up on their work. It provides intensive training for those construction companies as well, Mitchell said, and has been meeting weekly with utility companies to keep them apprised of where digging will take place.
"Our goal and objective is to give advance notice before we dig, to do it right, to do it safely and to restore it afterward," he said. "By and large, we're doing a very good job of it."
So far, he said, the company has installed 25 million feet of lines in the area and has been averaging 19 instances of damage per 100,000 feet, or about one every mile. "That's pretty good for a project this size."
Jamal Masumi, UtiliQuest's president, would not discuss the Di Donnas' case or how the company attempts to avoid mistakes when marking critical gas and power lines.
"We don't do any interviews with the media," he said.
Several companies praised Verizon for being receptive to their concerns. An official with Pepco said the two companies started meeting regularly late last year to discuss upcoming work, and since then damage to the company's power lines has decreased "measurably."
"We feel they understand the obligation, and they're working with us," said Le-Ha Anderson, a spokeswoman for Dominion Virginia. She would not comment on the power surge that affected the Di Donna family.
There has been a chorus of complaints from others, however. In Fairfax, residents have lodged 176 formal complaints with the county's consumer protection office since last September. An official there said most involved damage to yards, shrubs, sprinklers or driveways.
Oakton resident Mary Schaeffer said workers caused an enormous hump in her newly paved driveway after digging under it to install Verizon fiber-optic lines last spring, offering to patch the damage but never to repave it.
"If I wanted a patch, why would I have saved two years to have a new driveway put in?" she said. "Somebody ultimately came to my house, tore up my yard and my driveway. I don't care whose fault it is. Why is this my problem?"
Other complaints have come from cable companies, including Cox Communications and Comcast, which have complained that Verizon's contractors have cut their lines hundreds of times in the past year, disrupting television service to thousands of subscribers. In informal complaints lodged with state agencies in Maryland and Virginia, the companies have accused Verizon of ignoring safety during hasty work. Mitchell responded that Verizon's new lines will eventually carry digital cable, which puts the company in direct competition with the two cable operators.
The Di Donnas' turmoil began in March with the power surge that was so severe that smoke poured from their windows and from under their the roof. Amanda Di Donna, returning from the park with her son, found the house surrounded by fire trucks and filled with the odor of charred plastic.
The family returned home Aug. 5, but Amanda Di Donna said they have wiped out their savings and have scrapped a plan to replace their car.
"It's hard to sleep at night knowing that much is missing," she said.
Days after returning to their home, the Di Donnas received a package at their door from Verizon. They tore open the envelope, hoping it would contain a letter of apology from the company and a check for the expenses they feel UtiliQuest owes them.
Instead, it was an advertisement -- for Verizon high-speed Internet service.