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Downed power line kills 3 in San Bernardino

A father died while investigating why the 12,000-volt line fell in the backyard and his wife and her son were killed when they tried to help.

January 15, 2011|By Shan Li and Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Family and friends console one another as bodies are removed from the backyard of a San Bernardino home.
Family and friends console one another as bodies are removed from the backyard… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Three members of a San Bernardino family were killed Friday when they came into contact with the electric current from a 12,000-volt power line that had fallen into their backyard amid 50-mph winds.

Steven Vego, a 44-year-old plumber, went into the yard Friday morning after he and his family were jolted by two loud explosions. From inside the home, Kayli Vego saw her father step over the line and stumble to the ground.

She called to her mother, Sharon, who was in the frontyard putting out two fires apparently caused by falling power lines. Sharon sprinted to the backyard. But when she touched her husband, she collapsed as well. Her 21-year old son darted out next. He too tumbled to the ground when he touched one of his fallen family members.

According to a relative, Kayli, 17, and her 10-year old brother Steven Jr. watched in horror from inside the house and immediately called 911 at about 5:45 a.m.

When San Bernardino firefighters arrived, the grass was still sparking and smoldering, Capt. Mike Bilheimer said. They were initially unable to reach the victims because the line was still electrified. Crews from Southern California Edison arrived about 15 minutes later and the power was shut off.

Investigators from Edison, the San Bernardino City Fire Department, and other state and local agencies were still trying to determine what caused the high-voltage line to fall and how the three victims came into contact with it.

"We recognize this is a very difficult time for the family, friends and neighbors, and they have our deepest condolences," Edison President Ron Litzinger said at the scene.

Friends and relatives of the Vegos were outraged because a power line had fallen in the Vegos' backyard about three years ago and the family had questioned whether it was properly repaired.

Litzinger and another Edison official declined to comment on the accusations.

The family's next-door neighbor, Stella White, described hearing two explosions early Friday and said she saw fire glowing from the Vegos' backyard.

"It was a huge kaboom. I've never heard a noise like that before," said White, 79.

The dangling wire was still visible in the Vegos' backyard Friday afternoon and a large scorch mark marred the green grass.

Family and friends gathered to mourn the loss of the three victims, whom they described as kind and caring. Sharon Vego, 43, was a nurse, and her son, Jonathan Cole, was studying to become an emergency medical responder.

"They were always doing favors for people, they were just sweet and good all around," said Saul Barron, a friend of the family.

Kendra and Byron Sagastume, two friends of Jonathan Cole, said they had seen him earlier this week at a Bible study session and planned to golf with him this weekend.

"He was a really nice kid — really calm," Byron Sagastume said.

The Vegos were among hundreds of families who lost power Thursday night in North Park, a residential neighborhood in northwest San Bernardino. Spokesman Steven Conroy said that Edison began receiving calls about outages as the winds picked up early Friday.

"Power lines don't fall down often; why this particular line came down is obviously part of the investigation," he said.

"It appears it may have been wind-driven," he added.

The National Weather Service issued a wind alert for parts of Southern California on Friday, warning of heavy gusts in some parts of the Los Angeles Basin as well as canyons. The warning is expected to last in some parts of the region through Saturday at noon.

Officials from OSHA as well as the California Public Utilities Commission will be involved in the investigation, Conroy said.

Crowds formed throughout the day along Acacia Avenue, a residential street near the San Bernardino Mountains. Many placed roses and carnations on a tree outside the Vegos' home.

Dave Parsons arrived with six others to pay respects to Steven Vego, whom he described as a close friend. He said Vego mentioned the power line behind his home when it fell three years ago.

"He told me stories about it, about how dangerous it can be," Parsons said.

shan.li@latimes.com

samuel.allen@latimes.com

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