Four painters were killed and another was critically injured Friday when they pushed a metal scaffold against a high-voltage power line at the Navy Submarine Base on Point Loma.
The contact between the scaffold and the 12,000-volt line caused an explosion and fireball and sent about 7,500 volts of electricity down the scaffold and into the men's bodies, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. supervisors said.
Four of the men were electrocuted and died within moments. They were identified as Edward J. Illig, 37, of Lemon Grove; William H. Mallory, 37, and James B. Tatum, 56, of San Diego, and Benjamin J. Ross, 27, of El Cajon.
The fifth victim, Charles Booth, 50, of National City, was severely burned and was taken by Life Flight helicopter to UC San Diego Medical Center, where he was in critical condition late Friday night.
All five men were veteran civilian painters working for the Navy Public Works Center in San Diego. They had been working on the submarine base since August, and for a week had been painting Argonaut Hall, a three-story building used for training and private university classes for Navy personnel, Lt. (j.g.) Joy E. Hopkins, a Navy spokeswoman, said.
Hopkins said the men apparently had finished painting the south side of the building and were moving the scaffold to the east side when the accident occurred. She said it was not known whether the men misjudged the height of the scaffold and the power lines or whether they did not realize that the lines were there.
The scaffold was 28 feet, 2 inches tall. The three parallel wires--typical power lines strung between utility poles--were 27 feet, 4 inches above the ground.
Petty Officer 1st Class John Wheeless said he saw the men moving the scaffold as he was driving by the building on Sylvester Road about 8:55 a.m.
"After I passed them, I heard the explosion," Wheeless said.
Wheeless said he pulled around the side of another building, parked his car and began searching for a way to cut off the power. He said people emerged from the surrounding buildings and attempted to pull the injured men off the scaffold, using belts, boards and other objects.
Witnesses at the scene reported that they were unable to pull the men away from the scaffold for several minutes because power was running through the scaffold and the victims' bodies. But an SDG&E supervisor said he believed that the power was cut off automatically by the electrical system as soon as the contact between the scaffold and the wire caused a break in the circuit.
Phil Bateman, an SDG&E crew foreman, said people attempting to rescue the victims could not have known that the power was off. He said they were correct to assume the electricity was still running.
"We've had other cases where people trying to save others have themselves been killed," Bateman said.
Bateman said there was no way to know why one of the men survived the accident.
"It's just luck," he said. "It's not predictable at all."
All five men were experienced painters who had worked for the public works center for many years, center spokeswoman Marilyn Gouge said. Tatum had been employed by the center since 1966, Booth since 1971, Illig since 1977, Mallory since 1978 and Ross since 1985.
Bateman said state regulations prohibit workers who are not qualified electrical workers from coming within six feet of any power line carrying more than 600 volts.
"The minimum working distance for a scaffold is six feet," Bateman said. "Any portion of the scaffold or any person or any tool or piece of equipment cannot be closer than six feet."
Les Michael, director of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Long Beach office, said federal regulations do not specify distances but simply prohibit employers from allowing employees to work in an area where they could come in contact with a power line. The federal regulations apply on the Navy base.
Michael said his agency sent an investigator to Point Loma on Friday. He said the investigation will take 30 to 60 days to complete.
Hopkins said the Navy Public Works Safety Center is also investigating the accident.