One man was seriously injured and others less so when a spectator-friendly implosion to demolish an old Pacific Gas & Electric steam power plant Saturday went terrifyingly wrong, sending shrapnel into a group of onlookers.
Hundreds had gathered in the pre-dawn hours to witness the event. After it happened, cheers turned to screams as some in the crowd suffered bloody injuries.
Five people were injured in the parking lot of Lowe’s on Coffee Road, including a man facing “one obvious amputation, possibly a second,” said Bakersfield Police Lt. Scott Tunnicliffe.
The man, not initially identified, was airlifted to a hospital in Fresno.
Noting that the perimeter of the scene was designated by members of the demolition company working on the project, police said an officer watched the 6 a.m. blast at the intersection of Jet Way and Coffee Road.
The officer ran to assist a 43-year-old man down after hearing screams for help, police said.
“The male victim suffered a traumatic partial amputation of one leg and major injuries to the other,” according to a BPD news release. “Two additional adults were struck by apparent shrapnel from the blast and sustained minor injuries. Vehicles parked in the area were also damaged."
Authorities had closed off Coffee shortly after 5 a.m., but hundreds of people excited about watching the demolition of the Kern Power Plant at Coffee and Rosedale Highway had assembled in the parking lot of Lowe’s and along the southern edge of the Northwest Promenade shopping center.
Several spectators were treated for serious and minor cuts at the southwest corner of the Lowe’s parking lot, where ambulances and fire trucks raced after the demolition.
The southbound and northbound lanes of Coffee between Rosedale and Brimhall Road as well as Jet Way at Coffee were closed to traffic, but some people rose early to reserve a viewing spot before access was cut off.
Some camped out overnight in their cars and brought lawn chairs to watch the empty, outdated plant go down.
Fred Garten, 49, was at Lowe’s standing near a bridge behind police barricades when a roughly four-inch-by-six-inch piece of metal flew toward him, grazing his right leg below the knee. His shorts and socks were splattered with blood.
“It’s a good gouge, but it’s just scratches. It’ll heal,” he said.
Garten doesn’t have any malice toward PG&E.
“I took the risk. Right or wrong, it is what it is,” he said. “I just feel bad for the other guy. They took him away on a gurney, and I’m walking.”
Kelly Patt, 21, arrived at 1 a.m. to get his spot at Lowe’s. Shrapnel flew all around him, spraying but not cutting his girlfriend.
He was also near the man who is in danger of becoming an amputee.
“I saw that dude’s leg and I had to walk away,” he said. “There was a lot of blood, a lot of blood.”
Shrapnel also damaged a police cruiser and several private cars.
One of the cars belonged to Lowe’s employee Robert Ramirez, 22. His silver 2006 Ford Focus had big holes and dents on the passenger side.
“The manager told us one of the cars was hit. I didn’t think it was mine, but it was my bad luck,” he said.
PG&E contractor Demtech Inc. used 170 pounds of explosives to take down the plant after it was stripped down to two 140-foot boiler towers that would collapse to the east and west. The metal frame remnants are to be cut up and recycled.
Demtech couldn’t be reached for comment immediately after Saturday’s implosion.
PG&E issued a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were injured during the demolition,” it said. “Safety of the public and employees is our first priority at all times, and we are deeply saddened that at least one individual suffered serious injuries.
“We will work closely with all investigating agencies and the third-party contractors who managed and carried out the demolition as they work to identify the cause of this accident.”
Several contractors have been working for months to remove the main plant and a number of outlying buildings at the complex. PG&E hired prime contractor Cleveland Wrecking Co., which hired subcontractor Alpha Demolition. Alpha, in turn, hired Demtech.
Cleveland issued a statement.
“This was a terrible accident, and our hearts go out to the individuals who were injured,” it said. “We will be conducting a full investigation and will cooperate with the authorities. It would not be appropriate for us comment further at this stage.”
A 1,000-foot exclusive perimeter had been established around the site, said PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles. Most of it was on land PG&E owned or adjoining vacant land that was fenced off, he said.
The only part of the perimeter that wasn’t fenced off was Coffee Road, which is why that street was closed to traffic Saturday morning, Boyles said.
This is the second serious accident related to the destruction of the towering plant. In 2012, Luis Roberto Minjarez, 51, of Los Angeles, was in an aerial lift making vertical cuts to a large tank when he fell 50 feet to his death.
PG&E on Saturday stressed that Minjarez worked for one of the contractors, Covina-based Cleveland, not for the San Francisco-based utility.
One construction worker also was critically injured and presumed dead as the plant was built in the 1940s.
Saturday's accident puts both property owner PG&E and its contractors at legal risk of litigation despite road closures and other precautions taken to keep the public away from the blast site, said Bakersfield injury attorney David Cohn.
“When you’re dealing with explosives, that’s an ultra hazardous activity,” he said. “The people who did the demolition have some serious problems.
“The fact that they may have warned people to stay away will not absolve them of responsibility here.”
The steam power plant fell exactly as it was supposed to. Four distinct flashes of orange flames exploded on the ground, causing the plant’s supports to buckle and fall.
A huge plume of black and gray smoke then billowed up and to the east and west as the two halves of the plant fell.
The 6 a.m. blast was delayed a few minutes while the demolition crew waited for a train to pass on a nearby train track.
The demolition crew sounded a 10-minute warning on an airhorn, and sounded it again at one minute before counting down to the implosion.
To the east and north of the site, anxious crowds of spectators cheered and applauded after a boom so loud that it shook the ground.
Then word spread that chunks of the building had sprayed across Coffee and a canal, hitting cars and people.
Immediately, emergency responders who were on standby as a precaution descended on Lowe’s. The seriously injured man was rushed to the hospital. Others were treated at the scene.
Eric Roesler, who was at Lowe’s, said he was glad to see the ugly plant imploded.
“It was an eyesore,” he said. “I just wish they could have done it without injuring anyone.”
But not everyone was sorry to see the plant go.
“That’s jobs and power,” said spectator Jim Owens, 46, who picked up a chunk of the building to keep as a souvenir. “We should have repaired it and made power with it.”
The 120-acre PG&E complex once was an important part of the local power grid. Water was heated with natural gas or fuel oil to produce high-pressure steam, which was used to spin turbines to generate electricity.
But eventually, the plant became obsolete, and PG&E let it sit empty for years while it considered whether to upgrade or destroy it.
Today, only PG&E’s power distribution substation on 30 adjacent acres remains in use.
The power plant closed for good in 1995 after operating from 1948 to 1985, when it went on “stand-by” status.
This summer, the company is conducting soil and groundwater testing at the site. That work became necessary after investigative work in the early 2000s indicated that “some soil had been contaminated by limited metals and petroleum hydrocarbons,” spokeswoman Tracy Correa wrote in a June blog post.
The company says it will continue environmental remediation of the site into next year.
PG&E is working to prepare the site for sale and redevelopment after previous arrangements to sell the property fell apart.
It had a purchase agreement with Los Angeles-based World Oil Corp. for a while, but in 2011 the energy and real estate company pulled out of a deal to buy and redevelop the site, saying it would be too expensive to clean up environmental contamination there.
Prior to World Oil, which owns the now-closed Sunland Refinery nearby at 2152 Coffee Road, there were talks with North American Power Group, a Colorado company that planned to reopen the plant and generate power using bio-diesel fuel.
City leaders beat back that deal in 2003, arguing before the California Public Utilities Commission that industrial use was no longer appropriate, given the rise of homes and stores in the vicinity.
The popular Northwest Promenade shopping center went up immediately to the north in 2001, drawing consumers from the many residential neighborhoods that have sprouted in the area over the years. What once was an industrial corridor on the fringe of the city is now a busy hub of homes and retailers.
It was the proximity to homes that made the demolition a major cultural event for the city. People had been talking about waking up early to watch the implosion for weeks.
“It’s a shame this had to happen,” said spectator Denise Chase, 49. “Between this here and the fatality last year, it makes you wonder about PG&E’s ability to keep people safe.”