Bandaged from head to waist, with his eyes swollen shut and a tube down his throat, Kevin White still found a way to make his feelings about his medical care quite clear Saturday. Asked by his wife, Nancy, if he was in pain, the 22-year-old electrical worker, who was severely burned in an explosion at an underground Department of Water and Power work site Friday, gestured that he was.
Did he want another shot of morphine? Emphatically, he gestured no.
Why? his wife, a paralegal in West Los Angeles, wondered. He raised a burned hand to his swathed head and, silently made a slow circular motion in the air. He would rather be in pain than feel drugged and addled.
It was a demonstration of will in the face of overwhelming trauma. "He's coherent and seems to be in good spirits," said his father, Gerald White of Sepulveda.
White and five co-workers being treated at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital Burn Center will need all the inner strength they can summon in the coming days, as they enter a critical period in their battle for recovery. Nursing Supervisor Brenda Tames said the next two or three days will tell a lot about how well the most seriously injured men will do. Three are in critical condition, including White.
The most seriously injured, Robert McClure, 39 of Lancaster, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 58% of his body as well as smoke inhalation, which can severely damage the lungs. The spokeswoman said more seriously injured people have survived, and the families, gathered in small groups in a waiting room, sharing snacks and speculation about what caused the accident, all seemed optimistic.
They discussed surgical procedures, such as the delicate skin graft surgery that should begin by mid-week at the burn center, which is highly regarded nationally and receives patients from up and down the West Coast.
For Jean White, Kevin's mother, the toughest thing is being unable to help. "You don't know what to say to them," she said.
While the six men waged their medical battles, the DWP announced that it is forming a committee to investigate the accident, which occurred in an 8-by-14-foot electrical vault at 3:30 a.m. Friday, near 8th and Spring streets. The DWP work team was trying to reconnect a 4,800-volt line, which had been shut down temporarily for Metro Rail construction.
Assistant Chief Engineer Ken Miyoshi said the investigation will focus on the "junction box" which blew up in the accident.
Witnesses said they heard a sizzling sound. Workers below ground tried to get up the ladder and out. Brian Wilbur, 20, of Claremont, was on top, bending down to help the men below ground escape when the explosion occurred, said his brother, Robert.
The metal grate he was crouching upon was blown off the hole, tossing Wilbur across two lanes of roadway. "He said he was never so scared in his life," said Robert Wilbur, who met his brother at the hospital.
"He acted like he normally does, talking away," said the brother. "That made us all feel pretty good."
Extent of Injuries
Although Wilbur's job, consisting of handing tools and material to workers below, designates him as a "grunt" in the business, by extending his arm into the hole he increased his injuries, said his brother.
One of the four men below ground, George Gonzalez, 34, was able to escape, and McClure was nearly out when the blast occurred. But because the flames vented out the top, McClure was the most seriously burned.
The other two men below ground, White and Robert Landis, 32, of Canyon Country, suffered burns over 38% and 22% of their bodies. Landis' parents said his biggest problem may be lung damage.
Tames said they all would have been better off had they simply thrown themselves to the ground before the blast.
The surgical procedures awaiting the men include the careful removal of all the bits of dust and burned clothing that may have been driven deep into the lower layers of skin. After that, skin grafts will begin in an attempt to rebuild the surface of the skin and reduce scarring. If the initial grafts do not take, they may require transplants.
Three other men remained in serious condition at the hospital. They are Ted Smissen, 20, of Monrovia, Wilbur, and Clarence Dennis, 28, of Inglewood. Gonzalez was released from the hospital Saturday.