Dirks states Sept. 30 explosion likely caused from short in electrical switch

Workmen remove damaged equipment near California Hall on the day after the explosion. Dirks said evidence indicates the blast resulted after a switch shorted when officials tried to bring power back online.
Kelly Fang/File
Workmen remove damaged equipment near California Hall on the day after the explosion. Dirks said evidence indicates the blast resulted after a switch shorted when officials tried to bring power back online.

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An explosion and campuswide power outage at UC Berkeley on Sept. 30, which campus officials previously said appeared to be linked to damage caused by a theft of copper wire near Stern Hall, was likely caused by an unrelated short in a large electrical switch near California Hall, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in a message released to the campus Monday.

Dirks said that while the investigative team did not want to rule anything out in the ongoing inquiry into what caused the explosion, the campus tested the electrical grid after the incident and determined that damage from the copper theft discovered Sept. 17 had been repaired two days later. The team, composed of campus staff and an external electrical engineering firm, is now looking to determine what inside the switch itself may have caused it to fail and ignite.

On Sept. 30, an explosion erupted from a manhole near California Hall about 6:40 p.m. as campus officials attempted to restore power to the campus after an earlier outage that began about 4:30 p.m, prompting a campuswide evacuation and leaving some students trapped in elevators for up to about two hours. The next day, classes were canceled in the 11 buildings that remained unable to connect to the power grid. The campus brought in generators to make them operational. All the buildings were brought back onto campus power by Oct. 11.

The incident has cost the campus more than $900,000 so far, including charges paid to outside vendors for materials and excluding work by staff, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

Additionally, emails between campus administrators, workers, UCPD and others obtained by The Daily Californian through a Public Records Act request show that there was much behind-the-scenes uncertainty among campus personnel about the root cause of the explosion both Sept. 30 and in the days after, while some students also grappled with understanding what exactly had prompted a campuswide evacuation.

The ‘egg-shaped’ switch

According to Dirks, the evidence to date shows the switch may have shorted when campus officials tried to bring power back online.

“When the switch failed, it failed fast, literally in less than one third of a second,” Dirks said in the message, adding that the device has since been removed and shipped to an independent laboratory for forensic evaluation.

The switch, commonly referred to as a Trayer switch, helps bring power from high-voltage distribution systems and allows high-voltage crews to change the feed the power is coming from, according to Christine Shaff, communications director for the campus’s Facilities Services department. On campus, there are 19 oil-filled Trayer switches underground, seven that are free-standing and about 80 at buildings, according to an email sent by Sara Shirazi, an associate director at the campus physical plant, to other staff in her department Oct. 4.

The Office of Environment, Health and Safety reported that 130 gallons of oil were successfully removed from the damaged switch, although one gallon spilled into Strawberry Creek, according to a campus situation report from Oct. 2, also obtained through the Public Records Act request.

In an email to another department employee Oct. 8, Jerry Jimenez, supervisor of electrical engineering at the physical plant, said it appeared the fault started inside the Trayer switch, which had “quite a bulge to it.” He described the device as “a little egg-shaped,” adding that it must have distorted during the incident, in an email to two employees of Trayer Engineering Corporation, which manufactures the switch, the same day.

“Some of the things I am seeing don’t make sense,” Jimenez said in one of the Oct. 8 emails. “This will be an interesting investigation.”

Campus electrical engineers, however, said the Trayer switch is considered one of the best and most reliable devices in the industry, Dirks said in the message.

In the aftermath, lessons learned

After the incident, some students, professors and other campus community members were upset by what they perceived as a slow response from administrators, both in disseminating information about the power outage and explosion Sept. 30 and in the days after.

Dirks acknowledged these shortcomings and identified issues in the operation of campus emergency communications after the incident.

“The initial decision to delay communication about building closures and class cancellations … unintentionally created a certain degree of confusion and concern,” Dirks said in the message. “Our emergency alert system, ‘WarnMe,’ suffered from technical limitations that undermined the timeliness and utility of communications sent through that system.”

Fabian Leyva-Barragan, Lara Sarkissian and Vreni Michelini Castillo, UC Berkeley students who were walking toward the Campanile near California Hall when the explosion occurred, were frustrated with the lack of communication from the campus administration during and after the night of the explosion.

On Tuesday, Leyva-Barragan and Sarkissian met with a group of administrators including Mark Freiberg, director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety, and Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor of public affairs, to discuss the campus’s emergency response that night.

“It was interesting to see the faces of this blurry administration,” Sarkissian said. “It’s all such a blur to me and to many students.

The students, however, said they felt as if administrators were mainly concerned about the degree of their physical injuries — Sarkissian and Castillo sustained minor burns — and were frustrated by the lack of concrete answers from the campus about what had caused the explosion.

“They need to figure out how to prepare and how to efficiently evacuate the campus if indeed something like this happens again,” Castillo said.

The three students had been walking from their new media class, which was being held outside of California Hall on Sept. 30 because their normal classroom in Moffitt Library had lost power. Their professor, Ken Goldberg, who teaches new media, industrial engineering and operations research and electrical engineering and computer sciences, emailed administrators Oct. 1 to express his concern, decrying the lack of information on campus during the power outage and ensuing events.

“I’m hoping we can learn from this experience and be better prepared in the future,” Goldberg said in the email to Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer.

The campus administration is working to improve emergency protocols so it can deliver “timely, credible and comprehensive” information as much as possible, Mogulof said. They aim be more willing to communicate even without solid information, to develop the technical capabilities of the WarnMe system and to speed up the pace of delivering information.