Electrocution at Bus Shelter (11-23-99)

A deadly circuit | Probe of electrocution at bus shelter shows safety existed only on paper

Chet Barfield

24-Oct-1999 Sunday

The 911 dispatcher was stunned by the call at 8:29 p.m. that Sunday, Aug.
8: A man was slumped in an electrically sizzling bus shelter downtown, "and
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
through a metal bus shelter at Sixth Avenue and Market Street.

Although Brian Keith Williams died instantly, he was stuck there, burning,
for more than seven minutes before firefighters could pry him loose and
begin lifesaving efforts.

Within 11 days, experts figured out how it happened. But not why.

A two-month investigation by the Union-Tribune reveals that safety
provisions existed only on paper. There was little or no enforcement to
make sure they were followed.

Two similar electrocutions have occurred in other states in the past 12
years. The most recent, a year ago, killed a 12-year-old Miami boy and
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 its contractor,
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 hookups.

But amid the finger-pointing emerged a fatal flaw: None of the system's 475
shelters, which are lighted with power drawn from street lamps or traffic
signals, had ever undergone electrical inspections.

Electrical engineers hired to probe the accident blamed it on a botched
installation that lacked a basic safeguard -- a $10 grounding rod, the
absence of which would have been obvious to any trained eye.

Two other blatant mistakes were found. The transformer, a small box that
converts 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 shallow.
Wires were bent 90 degrees, which wore off their insulation.

But underlying these technical details is a story of a more fundamental

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
Union-Tribune found:

Contracts revised to delete requirements for city permits and

Edicts that electrical hookups were to be done properly, but no process
of assuring they would be.

A chain of delegated responsibility, from the city to the transit board
to private contractors, with each assuming the next in line was taking care
of basic electrical safety.

The last link in this chain is a defunct San Diego company, Performance
Electric, identified by Outdoor Systems as the sub-subcontractor that
hooked up the Sixth and Market shelter in July 1993.

Performance's sole proprietor, Steven P. Scruggs, now works in the
electrical department of a Home Depot store.

Scruggs, 55, 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.

All Scruggs would say, at work in his orange apron, was that if he searched
his records he might find who did the Sixth and Market installation. He
added that it could be difficult because he hired hundreds of workers.

Were they qualified? Until a new law was signed by the governor two weeks
ago, California required no testing, licensing or certification of
electrical workers.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers backed the licensing
bill. The union issued a statement the day it was signed, saying it would
"help prevent electrical accidents such as the bus stop electrocution . . .
in downtown San Diego."

The 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 El
Cajon home of the 99-year-old invalid she nurses five days a week. Brian
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 gone.

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 of
several girlfriends. Margaret Williams said she gave him money twice a
month "to keep him from bad things."

But bad things happened.

Williams was shot in the left arm and leg last year. He told his
grandmother the drive-by shooting was unprovoked, the work of strangers.

When he died, he had a moderate dose of cocaine in his blood, 0.2
micrograms per milliliter, medical examiners said.

The electricity ravaged his body -- huge wounds were burned in his skull,
shoulder and buttocks -- but it was mercifully quick. The current instantly
stopped his heart and short-circuited every nerve, a coroner's investigator

That is of little consolation to Margaret Williams.

"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 hearing
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
administrative costs.

The shelters started going up in 1991.

Five years later, Gannett Outdoor was bought by the nation's largest
outdoor advertising company, Outdoor Systems. The Phoenix-based giant
reported $706 million in net revenue last year.

Outdoor took over Gannett's contract with the transit board, acquiring the
300-plus shelters erected by then in the San Diego area. It kept Gannett's
subcontractor, RAL Construction, to continue new installations and

Meanwhile, the city and the transit board had a contract of their own,
authorizing the transit agency to tap into city circuits.

Early drafts of this "memorandum of understanding" called for city
oversight. A 16-page 1988 draft had an entire section on permits.

"Transit shelters shall not be installed without there first being issued
by the city an encroachment, excavation or other required permit," it

By 1992, the agreement was distilled to 1 1/2 pages with no mention of
permits. Shelters were to be "electrically protected with the designated
fuse size and be properly grounded."

City officials say the joint memorandum put the transit agency in charge of
the shelters.

"Part of the requirement of the responsible agency is to assure (the work)
is done in a safe manner," said George Loveland, deputy city manager. "We
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, Trainor said.

The transit agency thought it didn't need city inspections. Its agreement
with Gannett/Outdoor required the contractor to "familiarize itself with
applicable building, public works and electrical codes and at all times
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 drawings."

But his other 15 responsibilities ranged from preparing bus schedule
displays to researching right-of-way records.

Interviewed after the accident, Brown -- now the transit board's trolley
facilities administrator -- said he had nothing to do with reviewing
electrical hookups.

"I never got involved with that," he said. "I was working mainly with the
bus stops . . . assisting with the signage, the poles."

Brown reported to Roy Meenes, an associate transit operations specialist
identified by documents as the agency's point man for the shelter program.

Meenes and other transit board officials declined comment after the lawsuit
was filed, referring inquiries to general counsel Jack Limber.

"Everybody 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
the shelters."

Outdoor had no reason to suspect any problem with the Sixth and Market
shelter, which was installed three years before the company took over, Wisz

"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 accident.

In the reams of shelter record lists examined by the Union-Tribune, one
small, cryptic notation stands out. It's on an Outdoor Systems "electrical
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 have
involved. The Outdoor Systems spokesman said his company is now looking
into it.

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 accident.

Ernie Shaffer, former electrical superintendent for the city's
Transportation Department, said he examined all 32 high-voltage sites
between Aug. 20 and 23, but by then all wires had been removed.

The transit board had ordered the shelters de-electrified after the
accident. But Shaffer said he was surprised to find the wiring pulled.

The city expert found several sites lacked grounding rods, but he said the
safety stopgap could have been established another way, with wires "tied
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, John Houts,
keeps them in a locked box so his secretary won't see them and get sick?

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 fundamental
changes in the way bus shelters will be connected and installed from now
on. None will be hooked to high-voltage circuits; they'll run either on low
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 be
independently checked, and existing shelters throughout the company's
nationwide market are being re-examined. So far, no problems like those at
Sixth and Market have been found, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, two transit board members, San Diego Councilman Juan Vargas and
county Supervisor Ron Roberts, issued a call this month for San Diego's
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 Systems,"
Limber said. "I suspect it was a money issue, but I shouldn't say that. I
don't know."

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 his

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.

"Money," she said, "ain't going to bring him back."

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
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