Elderly woman commits suicide with toxic chemical at Berkeley City Club, leaves note to warn authorities

Hazardous materials situation in Berkeley, California
Police and fire personnel responded to a suicide with hazardous materials at the Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant Ave. in Berkeley, on Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Photo: David Yee

UPDATE, March 19: Authorities identified the woman who was found dead at the Berkeley City Club on Tuesday as 71-year-old Sydney Kustu. Read more about Kustu in Berkeleyside’s follow-up story, published Wednesday.

UPDATE, 9:10 p.m.: The person who committed suicide today at the Berkeley City Club was an 80-year-old woman who killed herself in her room using sodium azide, according to the Oakland Tribune. The woman lived in an apartment on the third floor of the landmark building, police officer Ethell Wilson said. The Tribune also reported that the woman left a note warning authorities of the dangerous situation. Sodium azide, a colorless salt, is the gas-forming component in many car airbag systems. When mixed with water it is acutely toxic.

Despite this report, it is unclear, however, how, or if, the woman was affiliated with the Berkeley City Club. In an email to its members sent out just before 9 p.m., the club said “no Member, resident nor team members were involved nor in harm’s way.”

ORIGINAL STORY: Berkeley Police are investigating a suicide that appears to have involved a potentially hazardous material at the Berkeley City Club on Durant Avenue.


According to Berkeley Police Sgt. Joe Okies, three agencies — Berkeley Police, Berkeley Fire and the University of California Police Department — have been working in unison since around 2 p.m. today to remove the suspicious material before the coroner could come on scene.

Berkeley Women's City Club, 2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley, CA
The suicide took place in a room at Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant Ave. in Berkeley

Okies could not say what the suspicious material was, or provide details about the deceased person, while the investigation was ongoing.

Berkeley City Club, at 2315 Durant Ave., between Ellsworth and Dana streets, has been evacuated and all traffic and pedestrians are being forced to take detours from the 2300 block of Durant. AC Transit buses have also been diverted.

The call about “a person down” came in at 1:56 p.m., Okies said. “Emergency services responded and discovered what appeared to be a suicide involving hazardous materials,” he said. “There was a coordinated effort to remove the material.”

At 6:30 p.m the coroner was not yet on scene. The joint command was taking steps to make the building safe.


“The known quantity of what appeared to be a hazardous material has been removed,” Okies said. He confirmed the suicide took place inside the Berkeley City Club, but said he could not be more specific.

The death investigation was ongoing at 6:30 p.m. and the 2300 block of Durant was still closed, due mainly, said Okies, to the large quantity of vehicles and equipment situated there.

Berkeley Fire also responded initially to the incident, according to Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb. But, he said, “it was determined to be a component that made it a law enforcement situation, so [police] assumed control of the situation.”

The Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club is a hotel and private social club with an indoor swimming pool and a restaurant, as well as a hair salon and meeting spaces.

This story is being updated as new information became available.


Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and on Facebook where we often break news. Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.