A deadly circuit | Probe of electrocution at bus shelter
shows safety existed only on paper
The 911 dispatcher was stunned by the call at 8:29 p.m. that Sunday,
8: A man was slumped in an electrically sizzling bus shelter downtown,
the back of his head's on fire."
"I'm sorry, his head is on
fire?" the dispatcher asked. "A man's head?"
Later that night, a
57-year-old woman sat watching the 11 o'clock news. She
felt sorry for "one
hurt mother," not knowing the pain would be hers.
In one of the most
bizarre and horrific accidents in San Diego's history, a
20-year-old man had
been electrocuted by high-voltage current coursing
metal bus shelter at Sixth Avenue and Market Street.
Keith Williams died instantly, he was stuck there, burning,
for more than
seven minutes before firefighters could pry him loose and
Within 11 days, experts figured out how it happened. But not
A two-month investigation by the Union-Tribune reveals that
provisions existed only on paper. There was little or no enforcement
make sure they were followed.
electrocutions have occurred in other states in the past
years. The most recent, a year ago, killed a 12-year-old Miami boy
prompted manslaughter charges.
San Diego police see the Williams
case as an accident, not a crime.
But the city, the transit authority
and private companies involved with the
shelter program face potential
multimillion-dollar damages in a pending
wrongful-death lawsuit they knew
would be filed.
All passed the buck. The city said the shelters belong
to the Metropolitan
Transit Development Board. The transit agency deferred to
Outdoor Systems Inc.
Outdoor pointed to its
installation and maintenance subcontractor, RAL
Construction. RAL said it
farmed out electrical work and hinted that the
city had a role in shelter
But amid the finger-pointing emerged a fatal flaw: None of the
shelters, which are lighted with power drawn from street lamps
signals, had ever undergone electrical inspections.
Electrical engineers hired to probe the accident blamed it on a
installation that lacked a basic safeguard -- a $10 grounding rod,
absence of which would have been obvious to any trained eye.
other blatant mistakes were found. The transformer, a small box that
5,000 volts to 120, was rated for 6.6 amps; the street-light
system was 20.
Also, the hole dug for the transformer under the sidewalk was too
Wires were bent 90 degrees, which wore off their insulation.
But underlying these technical details is a story of a more
Essential controls were lacking to prevent the
5,000-volt short that
charred flesh off the bones of an aimless young man.
Only now are they being put into place.
In dozens of interviews and thousands
of pages of documents, the
Contracts revised to delete requirements for city permits and
Edicts that electrical hookups were to be done properly, but no process
assuring they would be.
A chain of delegated responsibility, from the city to the transit board
contractors, with each assuming the next in line was taking care
The last link in this chain is a defunct San Diego
Electric, identified by Outdoor Systems as the
hooked up the Sixth and Market shelter in July 1993.
Performance's sole proprietor, Steven P. Scruggs, now works in
electrical department of a Home Depot store.
declined to be interviewed. He had not been subpoenaed as one
of the 100
"John Does" in the lawsuit the Williams family filed Sept. 10.
Scruggs would say, at work in his orange apron, was that if he searched
records he might find who did the Sixth and Market installation. He
that it could be difficult because he hired hundreds of workers.
they qualified? Until a new law was signed by the governor two weeks
California required no testing, licensing or certification of
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers backed the
bill. The union issued a statement the day it was signed, saying it
"help prevent electrical accidents such as the bus stop
electrocution . . .
in downtown San Diego."
electrocution of Brian Williams.
No one knows where Williams was going
that night. He didn't own a car; he
took the bus or trolley everywhere. The
grandmother who raised him thinks
he might have been heading back to Encanto
to get some belongings.
She had given him $200 that morning to rent a
room downtown. The two were
moving out of their two-bedroom apartment.
Until she found a new place, Margaret Williams planned to stay at the
Cajon home of the 99-year-old invalid she nurses five days a week.
wanted to be on his own for a while.
Margaret had raised Brian
from infancy. His mother, her daughter, is in a
Texas prison on a robbery
conviction. Brian's older brother is behind bars,
too. His father is long
Williams played football as a youth. School records show he
dropped out of
San Diego High School as a sophomore with poor grades.
He had no job. He watched TV or hung out with friends or the latest
several girlfriends. Margaret Williams said she gave him money twice
month "to keep him from bad things."
But bad things happened.
Williams was shot in the left arm and leg last year. He told
grandmother the drive-by shooting was unprovoked, the work of strangers.
When he died, he had a moderate dose of cocaine in his blood,
micrograms per milliliter, medical examiners said.
electricity ravaged his body -- huge wounds were burned in his
shoulder and buttocks -- but it was mercifully quick. The current
stopped his heart and short-circuited every nerve, a coroner's
That is of little consolation to Margaret
"I've lost a piece of my heart that can never mend," she said.
"He was my
She didn't find out for two days that the
victim on the news that night was
the grandson she calls a son.
"Brian was stuck to that bench. He was on fire," she said. "I'm
about my child and he's burning? That hurts.
"I have to live
with that the rest of my life. I picture him sitting there
on that bench like
a ball of light . . . all because they were too lazy."
San Diego is one of scores of cities
nationwide with privately contracted
bus shelters. They're a popular amenity
because they don't cost public
coffers a cent; they're run by companies that
make money selling ads.
The city and the transit board pondered such
programs throughout the 1980s.
In 1989, the transit agency signed on with a
large company, Gannett Outdoor
of Southern California. The agency was to
receive $150,000 a year for
started going up in 1991.
Five years later, Gannett Outdoor was bought
by the nation's largest
outdoor advertising company, Outdoor Systems. The
reported $706 million in net revenue last year.
Outdoor took over Gannett's contract with the transit board, acquiring
300-plus shelters erected by then in the San Diego area. It kept
subcontractor, RAL Construction, to continue new installations
Meanwhile, the city and the transit board had a
contract of their own,
authorizing the transit agency to tap into city
Early drafts of this "memorandum of understanding" called for
oversight. A 16-page 1988 draft had an entire section on permits.
"Transit shelters shall not be installed without there first being
by the city an encroachment, excavation or other required permit,"
By 1992, the agreement was distilled to 1 1/2 pages with
no mention of
permits. Shelters were to be "electrically protected with the
fuse size and be properly grounded."
City officials say
the joint memorandum put the transit agency in charge of
"Part of the requirement of the responsible agency is to assure (the
is done in a safe manner," said George Loveland, deputy city manager.
were assuming that it was."
Tom Trainor, deputy director of the
city permit-issuing Office of Planning
and Development Review, didn't make
the decision to remove the permitting
requirement, but he thinks it was done
for a simple reason: Permits cost
"Our guys don't work for
free," he said.
City inspections would have cost $50 to $80 per shelter,
The transit agency thought it didn't need city inspections. Its
with Gannett/Outdoor required the contractor to "familiarize itself
applicable building, public works and electrical codes and at all
comply with said codes."
Transit agency officials also hired a
consultant in 1992. William C.
Brown's $34,000 contract directed him, among
other things, to "ensure that
shelters are installed per the approved
But his other 15 responsibilities ranged from preparing bus
displays to researching right-of-way records.
after the accident, Brown -- now the transit board's trolley
administrator -- said he had nothing to do with reviewing
"I never got involved with that," he said. "I was working mainly with
bus stops . . . assisting with the signage, the poles."
reported to Roy Meenes, an associate transit operations specialist
by documents as the agency's point man for the shelter program.
and other transit board officials declined comment after the lawsuit
filed, referring inquiries to general counsel Jack Limber.
was led to believe that the work would be done properly and in
fact was being
done properly," Limber said.
RAL officials have refused comment since
the company was named in the suit,
and Outdoor Systems is speaking only
through its corporate spokesman, Tom
Outdoor Systems thought
the wiring was being installed safely because that
was required under the
existing contracts among the transit agency, Gannett
and RAL. Wisz said
Outdoor simply stepped into Gannett's shoes in 1996.
"There was a
maintenance-inspection program that was in place," he said.
"RAL was the
subcontractor in charge of the maintenance and inspection of
Outdoor had no reason to suspect any problem with the Sixth and
shelter, which was installed three years before the company took over,
"From Day One, apparently, that transformer was not
properly grounded," he
However, documents reveal there was an
unexplained electrical repair at the
site just five months before the
In the reams of shelter record lists examined by the Union-Tribune,
small, cryptic notation stands out. It's on an Outdoor Systems
status report" dated March 16, 1999.
Under a column
labeled "electrical attachment point/repair," the Sixth and
Market shelter is
marked "REP.3/99" -- an abbreviation with obvious
Limber said transit officials don't know what that repair may
involved. The Outdoor Systems spokesman said his company is now
Another looming question concerns the condition of
other sites, including
dozens connected to high voltage. Was Sixth and Market
the only one not
The answer may never be known, said a city
electrical supervisor brought
out of recent retirement to look into the
Ernie Shaffer, former electrical superintendent for the
Transportation Department, said he examined all 32 high-voltage
between Aug. 20 and 23, but by then all wires had been removed.
The transit board had ordered the shelters de-electrified after
accident. But Shaffer said he was surprised to find the wiring pulled.
The city expert found several sites lacked grounding rods, but he said
safety stopgap could have been established another way, with wires
back into the city's grounding system."
Shaffer said city crews
did not work on shelter electrical installations,
despite RAL's early hints
that they did and several unspecified references
to "city hookups" in the
transit agency files.
"It was their circuit, their system," Shaffer said
of the transit agency.
"Their only involvement with us was that they took
power from us."
Who did what may be clarified if the lawsuit goes to
trial, but few expect
it will. Would the defendants really want a jury to see
photos of a
victim's body so grotesque that the Williams family's lawyer,
keeps them in a locked box so his secretary won't see them and
City Attorney Casey Gwinn says the city won't settle because
it is not
responsible for the accident.
Officials say the
electrocution of Brian Williams has prompted
changes in the way bus shelters will be connected and installed
on. None will be hooked to high-voltage circuits; they'll run either
voltage or solar power.
And all work will be inspected twice,
by engineers of the transit agency
and the city.
"We want to assure
all of our contractors and their subcontractors . . .
that they'll be having
somebody looking over their shoulder," said transit
board counsel Limber.
Outdoor Systems is also changing its procedures. All installations will
independently checked, and existing shelters throughout the
nationwide market are being re-examined. So far, no problems like
Sixth and Market have been found, the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, two transit board members, San Diego Councilman Juan Vargas
county Supervisor Ron Roberts, issued a call this month for San
shelters to be lighted with solar power.
The transit agency
and RAL contemplated solar conversions more than two
years ago. Memos showed
six shelters slated for testing in April 1997, but
nothing after that.
"I've been told by our staff it was never implemented by Outdoor
Limber said. "I suspect it was a money issue, but I shouldn't say
The new safety procedures won't do much for Brian Williams' family.
His 62-year-old great-aunt, Lula Williams, admits her nephew had faults.
But she loved him, she says, and still lies awake nights thinking about
The aunt, a retired nursing assistant, is not a plaintiff
in the lawsuit.
If there's a settlement, she doesn't know whether she'd get
any of it.
Lula Williams says that's not what matters.
she said, "ain't going to bring him back."
Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.