Cal campus reels from power outage caused by thieves

Unit 1 power came back on at 10:17 p.m. Photo: Marty Takimoto

Unit 1 power came back on at 10:17 p.m. on Monday Sept. 30 on the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: Marty Takimoto

Update, 6:45 a.m. Power has been restored to most of the buildings on campus and most classes will meet as scheduled. But 11 buildings remain closed, including Doe Library, the Bancroft Library, California Hall, Durant Hall, Dwinelle Hall and annex, and Edwards track. Classes at those buildings will be cancelled. Click here for complete list.

Original story: The UC Berkeley campus remained eerily dark and deserted Monday night after officials ordered everyone to evacuate because of a large explosion.

(See Berkeleyside’s live blog of developments related to the incident here.)

Power went off around the campus around 4:40 p.m. and officials quickly determined that it was connected to the theft of copper wire at a power location within a mile of campus. Emergency generators then kicked in.

But around 6:30 p.m. a huge explosion in an underground steam tunnel rocked an area near California Hall, sending flames and smoke high into the air, blowing off a manhole cover, trapping people in elevators and further impairing the campus’ electrical grid, according to Dan Mogulof, university spokesman. There was also a small leak of ammonia, which was contained quickly.

Five people received minor injuries from the explosion, and one of them was taken to the hospital. Classes were cancelled and the campus was evacuated for perhaps the first time ever.

“According to witnesses, the explosion was about two stories high and as wide as a two-lane street,” he said.

During the outage, approximately 20 people were stuck in elevators in affected buildings, but all were freed by 8:30 p.m. The fire was reportedly out 8:15 p.m.

Within a short period of time the Cal campus was essentially deserted with most of the buildings dark. One exception was the Campanile, which stood like a sort of beacon in the sky. UC police used their cars to block roads leading into campus and used bullhorns to tell any stragglers to leave.

The dorms that surround the campus are lit by the campus electrical system so many students could not gather either at school or in their bedrooms.

Electrical technicians were gathering at 14 power stations around campus as of 9 p.m. Officials planned to turn the power stations on one at a time.

“We are concerned that when we bring the power up there might be another explosion,” said Mogulof. “So we are going to take it slow and take no chances.”

Many worried parents saw news about the explosion on television and were calling the campus to find out about their children. The university is updating its website frequently to disseminate information.

Students who were forced to leave their classrooms were forced to be creative. A group of about 14 students set up an impromptu classroom on Center Street near Shattuck Avenue right on the curb outside the Bank of America building around 8:45 p.m. The biology students were heading to a review session when they were told to leave campus.

“We went to the classroom where the review was supposed to happen, but we were told to evacuate,” said second-year student Diego Dubom. “And then we started moving our way from campus down to where we are now.”

The students found one another through Twitter, which was a main source of information throughout the night.

Mogulof said the cause of the explosion, which followed a widespread power outage at 4:30 p.m., “appears to be related to an incident of vandalism on our electrical system.” He said vandals had been digging up copper grounding wires on campus, “which caused extensive damage to the electrical system.”

The vandalism was discovered late last week, but “it appears it had been going on for quite a while.”

Mogulof said the visible damage had been repaired on the weekend.

“What happened today is an indication that the vandals caused far more damage than we could originally see or assess,” he said just before 8 p.m. Monday.

Officials are hoping to discover the cause of the explosion and open the campus Tuesday for classes.

People are being asked to stay away from the main campus until power is restored, but the residence halls, which run on backup generators, have been cleared for students to return.

The university will continue to post updates on the UC Berkeley home page, the UC Berkeley emergency page, the campus Facebook page and Twitter. The toll-free campus emergency information line can be reached at 800-705-9998. 

Related:
Cal: Explosion was 2 stories high, wide as 2-lane street (09.30.13)

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  • Hugh

    They are taking the government shutdown literally.

  • Woolsey

    I suppose it would be too much to ask for a tightening of requirements for copper, brass, and other metal recycling (photos, fingerprints of those bringing in this “unused” material for recycling). I was recently in the Sierra and someone had tried to pull off one of the brass historical markers that was bolted through a stone wall. They must have used a truck to pull it – it was bent in half but they couldn’t bust all the bolts. I wonder what “legitimate” recyclers accept California Historical Markers, bronze and brass tombstones, memorial plaques, etc, not to mention transformer copper, SF aluminum benches, remote sensing equipment and so on.

  • good copper / bad copper

    I suppose it would be too much to ask for a tightening of requirements
    for copper, brass, and other metal recycling (photos, fingerprints of
    those bringing in this “unused” material for recycling).

    That industry is regulated and legislators do tweak the regulation from time to time but it will never solve this problem.

    Think of it this way: The good guys will try to regulate demand for scrap metal and to regulate transport and export of scrap metal. They’ll spend some number of dollars for that. The bad guys will try to find work-arounds that are cheap enough to preserve their ill-gotten profit.

    The bad guys have the easier and much less expensive job. The regulatory step-up will bankrupt the good guys before it has much impact on the problem.

  • Marcia T

    Excellent reporting, Frances Dinkelspiel!

    How amazingly lucky that apparently no one was killed or critically injured in the explosion.

    Good argument for surveillance cameras on campus?