Local News

Tuesday, Dec 24 2013 08:00 PM

TOP STORY OF 2013: Bakersfield man still fighting to regain use of legs after explosion

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Jerry Wood recalls the events of Aug. 3 when he was hit by flying debris from the demolition explosion of the PG&E power plant on Coffee Road. Wood's wife, Laura, is at right.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Jerry Wood's left leg was severely damaged, (along with the right), when he was hit by flying debris from the demolition explosion of the PG&E power plant. Wood has had numerous surgeries on his legs and more are required.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Jerry Wood had both legs severely damaged when he was hit by flying debris from the demolition explosion of the PG&E power plant on August 3rd. He has numerous surgeries and is still recovering from the accident.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    An explosion knocks down one of the remaining towers at the old Kern Power Plant at Coffee Road and Rosedale Highway in August. The demolition of the plant, which has been closed since 1995 after operating for about 37 years, was part of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s plan to sell the site for redevelopment.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Jerry Wood had watched building demolitions on television, but not until Aug. 3 had he experienced one in person.

Now he wants nothing to do with them.

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About this series

Today: We look back at the top five stories of the year across all types of news -- breaking, sports, government, business. This being Bakersfield, there were many more headline-makers, and we'll recount them in coming days.

Barring more big breaking news -- again, this is Bakersfield, so you never know -- here's what to expect:

Thursday: The top stories in government and in health.

Friday: The top breaking news stories.

Saturday: The top stories in business, and the best quotes of the year.

Sunday: Those we lost in 2013.

Monday: The top stories in sports.

New Year's Eve: People to watch in 2014.

New Year's Day: Can you guess 2014's big headlines?

Early that morning, the 44-year-old Bakersfield sales and marketing director and his wife, Laura, joined hundreds of others to "go see the spectacle," as he later recalled -- the climactic destruction of the old Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power plant on Coffee Road.

The crowd gathered across the street at the Lowe's Home Improvement parking lot, one of two designated viewing spots, made Wood feel anxious, as all large assemblies do. T he couple briefly considered leaving, but decided to stay.

The explosives began an hour late, about 6 a.m. Two blasts occurred after a series of warning beeps. Part of the plant began to collapse. Then came a third detonation, and with it, a strange sound Wood described as wind whistling past a tree.

It turned out to be the sound of debris hurtling some 2,000 feet from the demolition site toward his legs.

For maybe 10 seconds, the father of four was too stunned to realize what had happened. As Laura, 39, struggled to hold him up, he was gripped by searing pain. Bystanders rushed to apply pressure to his bleeding limbs.

In a recent interview at his home, he said he couldn't understand why no one else around him had been badly hurt.

"I never would have thought I was the only one who would have had damage," he said.

But others had been hit, just less seriously.

Among them was another spectator, 18-year-old Andrea Bauer, a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Her Bakersfield lawyer, David Cohn, said a piece of debris ricocheted off the ground, causing a small spark, and then struck one of her legs. She received sutures at a nearby emergency room. No lawsuit has yet been filed on her behalf.

A young couple standing next to the Woods, Wesley Bishop and Michelle Dela Pena, were uninjured but horrified.

Bishop, 21, was wearing shorts at the time, and he remembers the sensation of his legs being peppered.

"It was a burning feel, like, what is going on here?" he said.

Not until they were driving away did Bishop and Dela Pena, 22, realize it wasn't debris from the blast that still clung to their clothing. It was bits of Wood's legs.

The garments they wore that day remain stored in a family freezer in case Wood needs them as evidence as he awaits investigation reports and weighs filing a lawsuit.

Cal-OSHA investigators immediately ordered PG&E and the three demolition companies involved not to disturb the piles of debris at the site. The agency is being assisted by an explosives expert with the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E's primary regulator, has also opened an inquiry. Both investigations are pending.

CONTRACTOR ISSUES

In the weeks following the accident, questions began to surface about what level of supervision had been performed before and during the demolition.

Each of the three companies brought on to the job -- Covina-based Cleveland Wrecking Co., hired by PG&E to be the prime contractor; Lincoln-based Alpha Explosives; and the company it brought on, Demtech Inc., based in DuBois, Wyo. -- has run into some form of licensing or permitting trouble related to work done at the Coffee Road plant:

* Demtech, which carried out the Aug. 3 blasts, did not have the permit necessary to use the explosives, according to the Kern County Sheriff's Office;

* Alpha's California contractors license, required for its participation in the demolition, expired three days before the event, the Contractors State License Board reported; and

* Cal-OSHA levied a $20,250 fine against Cleveland after it determined the company lacked a permit it was supposed to have before performing earlier demolition work at the site in June 2012, when one of its workers fell to his death while making vertical cuts to a large tank at the plant. Cleveland has appealed the fine.

All three contractors have declined to comment.

Days after the Aug. 3 accident, PG&E acknowledged it lacked the expertise necessary to review its contractors' demolition plans.

Several months earlier, however, the San Francisco-based utility had created a so-called Contractor Safety Program intended to address such concerns. With oversight by the CPUC, the program was designed to help PG&E screen, qualify and better supervise its contractors.

Correspondence between the commission and the utility indicate the program was drawn up in response to the June 2012 worker fatality at the PG&E plant.

It is unclear whether the program was in place in Bakersfield at the time of the August accident. Representatives of the CPUC and PG&E say it was in effect at other projects but probably not in Bakersfield.

PG&E fired Cleveland about three weeks after the accident, saying the contractor "failed to perform to our satisfaction on the project."

LONG RECOVERY

Wood, meanwhile, has undergone about two dozen medical procedures, including bone, skin and muscle grafts. One operation lasted 12 hours and involved four surgeons and other medical staff.

Laura Wood said the debris that struck her husband's legs claimed 80 percent of the tissue from his left leg and 20 percent from his right. It destroyed bone as well, leaving a nearly three-inch gap in his left tibia.

Wood had never been admitted to a hospital before. But since the accident, he has been shuttled between hospitals in Bakersfield, Fresno and the Bay Area.

The time away from work ultimately cost him his job. Wood's Bakersfield lawyer, Dennis Thelen, said the company was unable to keep the position open and was forced to lay him off.

Thelen said it remains unclear whether Wood will regain full use of both legs.

A PG&E representative said the company is providing financial support to Wood.

Thelen said no decision will be made on whether to file a lawsuit about the accident until Cal-OSHA's investigation report has been released.

The accident's impact has been felt beyond Bakersfield's borders.

In an Aug. 20 phone interview, the wife of Demtech owner Scott Gustafson, the man who detonated the explosives that critically injured Wood, said the accident turned her husband into a "broken man."

"He doesn't know" what went wrong that day, Beverly Gustafson said. She added that her family and members of her Wyoming church were praying constantly for Wood's well-being.

She expressed hope that the accident would result in new regulations regarding crowd control.

"People don't have fear, knowledge, respect, and we're going to use this and turn the industry around," she said. "This (building demolition) is not a spectator sport."

Wood agreed.

"I've seen my last one," he said.

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