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Berkeley explosion: Student recounts terrifying moments at impact

October 01, 2013|By Robin Abcarian

 BERKELEY -- When the power went out at UC Berkeley late Monday afternoon, art and engineering professor Ken Goldberg decided to hold his New Media seminar on a grassy area outside a campus library since it was still light enough to see.


When the hourlong class ended at 6:30 p.m., four of his students left the area together. Lara Sarkissian, a 21-year-old senior, had barely stepped past a manhole cover on a major campus walkway when she suddenly felt heat on her back.

“I heard my classmates screaming,” Sarkissian said. “The ground just shook and that’s when we had to run. We just started running and it all exploded. We turned around and looked and it was like a big mushroom cloud.”

Sarkissian thought someone had set off a bomb. “It was such like perfect timing because no one else was around. We just stepped on it, and it exploded.”

Goldberg thought the same thing.

“It was scary. It was big,” he said. “My first thought was that it was right near the administrative building. If someone wanted to make a statement, that’s where they would bomb something.”

Within about an hour of the blast, however, UC Berkeley officials said an underground electrical vault had exploded. They said they suspected the mishap was related to the theft of copper grounding wire from an off-campus electrical station. The theft was discovered last week, said UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof, and had been repaired Sunday, but the damage was more extensive than officials originally thought. The blast occurred when campus engineers were bringing the power back on.

On Tuesday, things appeared to be almost back to normal on the bustling campus. Classes were cancelled in the 11 buildings that remained without power, but for many, life went on as usual.

The handful of people who were close to the explosion, however, were still reeling.

“I don’t want to walk on that campus,” Sarkissian said Tuesday.

As soon as they felt the blast, Sarkissian said, she and her classmates began running east toward the Campanile, the campus’s landmark bell tower, where firefighters and paramedics were beginning to gather.

Sarkissian said she and her friends were given contradictory instructions by firefighters.

“They told us to keep running  toward the Campanile,” she said. “Then they told us to sit down by Wheeler Hall [a building much closer to the blast]. There was thick, heavy smoke, like we were coughing and they were yelling at us to sit there, and we were like why? We were breathing in the smoke, so we ran to the Campanile.”

Sarkissian said she and her friends poured water on their injured classmate’s burned back, while paramedics didn’t seem to realize that she had suffered burns. "They weren’t doing anything," Sarkissian said. “They just asked if we were OK. I didn’t know if I was OK. My legs were numb. ”

The classmate, a graduate student in her late 20s, was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. She suffered second-degree burns on her back and arms, Sarkissian said. Sarkissian was later treated for a burn on her left shoulder at a hospital near her family’s home in San Francisco.

   As campus police closed the southern and western entrances to the campus, Goldberg said, students were still streaming onto university grounds from the north side. He and a graduate student posted themselves at a northern entrance and turned away hundreds of people, he said. “There are so many entrances, you would think it would be a process they’d have down,” he said.

An hour after the explosion, some students who had been in class in a building on the east side of campus were unaware that the campus had been evacuated.

“They were in Stanley Hall, up by the Greek Theater, and the emergency lights had come on, and they’d continued with their lecture,” Goldberg said. “As they wandered out, I said, ‘Did anyone tell you it’s dangerous to walk on vents?’ and they said no.”

Others told him they had disabled friends trapped on the third floor of a building.

“It just illustrates there is much to be done,” Goldberg said. “I feel like we are really not ready when the big one comes. There really have to be better procedures in place.”


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