A theft from the Rattenbury Road substation put Maritime Electric crews at risk. (John Jeffery/CBC)

Maritime Electric crews found themselves in a dangerous situation Sunday when they turned up at an electrical substation to restore power to central P.E.I. customers during a lightning storm.

Someone had stolen copper wire from the Rattenbury Road substation, and that wire was part of the safety equipment.

"We had thieves on site sometime in the last number of weeks, perhaps, that had gotten in and removed copper wire from a grounding device at our substation," said utility spokeswoman Kim Griffin.

Griffin said the thieves had also removed the substation's lightning arresters, a device used to protect the insulation from lightning. Because the Rattenbury Road substation was no longer grounded, the equipment was significantly damaged.

"When this copper was stolen, some of the things that were stolen were the things that protect our substation and protect our employees and our equipment," she said.

"This was all stripped away from the substation and [it] could have ended very tragically,"

At the time the utility's crews arrived at the site, they did not know there had been a copper theft.

"It was very, very dangerous for our employees who actually entered the substation. And in the midst of this, there was a lightning storm happening, so it was a really scary day for our employees," said Griffin.

"The electric fields that are happening in that substation, you don't even have to touch anything — you can actually be outside the fence — and be electrocuted or harmed.… We were very surprised, after what we know today, that we weren't in a situation where we were finding bodies there yesterday."

The theft also slowed down repairs at the substation. An inspection had to be done to make sure it was safe before going ahead with repairs.

While the copper ground wire was only worth a few hundred dollars, the company said the damage to the substation could be between $40,000 and $200,000. The full extent of the damage won't be known until later this week.

Griffin said whoever stole copper wire from the substation put their own lives at risk as well.

"People that were in operations, some of them had said first they thought maybe these folks were pretty smart," she said.

"Now they're saying that they think it was probably slightly suicidal, if you will — that it was very, very challenging and very surprising that someone wasn't burned or killed."

Maritime Electric will be checking substations across P.E.I. to ensure there haven't been other copper thefts that could cause a safety risk for workers.

At the height of rain and hail Sunday there were 1,800 customers without power. In addition to repairing the lightning strike at the Rattenbury Road substation, crews also had to deal with 47 individual lightning strikes to customers homes.

Power was restored by 2 a.m.