We are three of the five individuals who were directly affected by the explosion Sept. 30. We are still waiting for the university to give us answers and support as members of the Cal community. We are two undergraduates, one graduate student and employees of UC Berkeley. This is our account of the event.
On Sept. 30, we noticed fire trucks and police on campus. At 5:30 p.m., our professor decided to have class behind California Hall because we could not enter our classroom due to a power outage. At 6:30 p.m., our class ended, so we all walked toward the Campanile, past California Hall. All of a sudden, we felt heat behind our backs. An explosion. Heavy smoke started coming out from below a manhole.
We were confused and terrified. We sat on the grass by Wheeler Hall as the smoke kept rising. Five minutes later, a UCPD officer came by and told us to move upward and sit behind Wheeler. We smelled the thick, toxic smoke. Shaken, we got up and kept moving. The smoke continued to rise, so we ran to the grass in front of the Campanile. The five of us sat there waiting for the paramedics. We felt our hearts get heavy when our friend was taken by the ambulance. The paramedics told us, “You are not injured,” and they instructed us to leave toward Bancroft Way. There was no guidance, help or effort to provide us with medical attention after we experienced the explosion. Alone, we walked our separate ways across campus, telling people not to enter. For weeks, we struggled to feel safe on campus.
A month and a half later, the three of us have not been contacted by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks or other administrators. We still have many unanswered questions. Why did they not evacuate us before a tragedy had to occur? How can we be sure this will not happen again? How can we be sure UC Berkeley will respond in a sensitive manner during and after an incident?
UC Berkeley’s unsuccessful alert and warning systems were incapable of preventing our injuries in the explosion. Security measures like WarnMe failed to communicate with students, community members and employees such as ourselves about the on-campus incidents happening that day.
UC Berkeley’s failure to recognize its liability after the explosion still weighs heavily on our minds. Our experiences should not be treated as “damage control.” The mistakes of the university are unforgivable due to the lack of direction, communication, and explanation of a plan for prevention. It saddens us deeply to know that our safety is not valued by this university, neither as students nor as employees.
This experience uncovers in a painful way the ruptures of the UC system, a system that has many students drowning in debt, juggling multiple shifts to make ends meet. We as students are not valued.
Around the world, education crises are deepening and moving toward privatization. Academic institutions, such as UC Berkeley, push further into a corporate body. Fox Sports, Monster and Red Bull on Bancroft and College Avenue. Less state funding, more corporate “support.” With all its excellence, UC Berkeley strives in many ways, but it has failed all of us in its understanding of responsibility for us as students and workers.
How could the neglect of copper-wire theft create such an occurrence? Is it maybe connected to the reduction of funding? The reductions in funds and staffing have created an overload for employees at the university, which is connected to the struggles of GSIs, such as Vreni Castillo, challenging low wages.
On Wednesday, AFCSME and UAW went on strike for better benefits, a raise and improved contracts. The items that prompted the strike represent just a glimpse of the many inequalities present around our campus. For example, The outdated computers in the ethnic studies library pale in comparison to the material affluence of the Haas School of Business building: Who is given things, who is starved? Who can pile on more loans? How much further can this go?
The same day of the explosion, Janet Napolitano began her presidency. Many of us, students, workers and faculty, feel she was selected undemocratically as president of the UC system. Many of us are uncomfortable with her nonscholarly background. We have strong concerns because of her previous work as Secretary of Homeland Security and as governor of Arizona during the peak of conservative legal regulations. How should Castillo and other migrant students and workers feel in this type of learning and working environment? Why was the opinion of the student body not considered in her appointment?
What is our value as part of the student body to our administration? The university claims pride in past student leadership during the ’60s, diversity, freedom of speech, but unfortunately, we have not felt valued and supported by administration after our mental injuries in the explosion.
We all deserve clarification and an acknowledgement of the university’s failure in handling a campus emergency. We deserve the administration’s awareness in the negligence of mental health issues. The “five free counseling sessions” at the Tang center, which have been reiterated by administration as a means of “support,” are not solutions to our different backgrounds and healing practices. We want concrete, transparent explanations by the administration in the form of a public statement. Because we still have no sense of what the cause, impact and continued risk of the explosion is, we don’t know whether we will be safe the next time power goes out. What we do know is that our university is not equipped to handle these situations. This status leaves many of us unable to feel comfortable on campus or trust that UC Berkeley’s safety procedures are effective in creating a safe learning and working environment.
Fabian Leyva-Barragan and Lara Sarkissian are undergraduates, and Vreni Michelini Castillo is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.