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TV Reporter Badly Burned in Explosion

May 23, 2000|JOHNATHON E. BRIGGS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A veteran television news reporter assigned to cover a news conference in Hollywood was seriously burned Monday when the microwave transmitter extending from a KABC van came too close to a 34,500-volt power line and caused an explosion.

The reporter, Adrienne Alpert, 48, was airlifted to Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, where doctors performed emergency surgery to restore blood flow to burn areas over 25% of her body. Heather MacKenzie, Alpert's photographer, and a Los Angeles police officer suffered minor injuries and were treated at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and released.

The accident occurred about 9:45 a.m. as Alpert and MacKenzie were setting up for a live broadcast from the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Gordon Street, near the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

According to witnesses, Alpert was inside the van as the transmitter was being raised several feet. MacKenzie was helping position the transmitter when it touched or came near a high-voltage wire. That created a power arc that triggered an explosion, authorities said.

"The arcing looked like a miniature lightning bolt," said Los Angeles Police Officer Patrick Beighley, who was injured.

Beighley said he saw Alpert in the front seat, just about to get out of the van, when "there was an illumination and then a concussive explosion."

Beighley suffered elbow and face scrapes from being knocked to the ground. When he looked up, smoke was coming from beneath the van's hood and the transmitter's antenna had melted.

Witnesses said mechanics from nearby auto repair shops opened the hood of the van, cut the battery wires and extinguished flames in the engine as police officers and others rushed to Alpert's aid.

Mechanic Steve Petrosyan hurried to the van, less than 20 feet from his auto repair shop. MacKenzie, the van's driver and a 20-year veteran at KABC, was in tears and asked him to help Alpert, whose hands and feet were severely burned.

"I started crying when I saw [Alpert], because I couldn't do anything" said Petrosyan, who was uncertain if he should touch her.

Petrosyan said Alpert moaned, "I can't breathe. . . . I don't want to die."

A spokesman at the Grossman Burn Center said she was in critical but stable condition. Doctors said Alpert suffered third-degree burns to her arms and feet.

Alpert and several other reporters were in Hollywood to cover an LAPD news conference announcing a crackdown on parents who fail to buckle children into car safety seats.

Alpert, an El Cajon native and graduate of San Diego State, worked at KGTV-Channel 10 in San Diego from 1977 to 1996 as a political reporter, general assignment reporter and anchor before going to KABC in Los Angeles. News of the accident stunned former colleagues and competitors in San Diego.

"Adrienne is a very strong person. She's got a great attitude," said Lee Swanson, executive producer at KGTV. "I know she's facing more surgery, but she's the kind of person who can deal with this better than anyone I know. We all have a lot of hope for her here."

Alpert is married to Barry Paulk, owner of an executive recruitment firm. They have a 7-year-old son.

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Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this story.

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