Saturday, November 28, 2015         

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Theft suspected in outage

A man is burned and 450 lose power after an explosion at the former Hard Rock Cafe site

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


A copper theft gone awry may have been the cause of an electrical explosion yesterday morning that critically injured a man and cut power to about 450 customers in the McCully-Kapiolani area.

Both a Honolulu police lieutenant and an official with Hawaiian Electric Co. said there was evidence indicating someone tried to break into a green transformer vault in an attempt to steal copper.

A 33-year-old man was taken from the former Hard Rock Cafe site in McCully to Straub Clinic & Hospital in critical condition with burns, said Dr. Jim Ireland, director of the city Department of Emergency Services.

Police have initiated cases for criminal property damage and attempted copper theft, but no arrests have been made, said police patrol Lt. Gerrit Kurihara.

Power was restored to two or three stores affected at Ala Moana Center between 15 and 30 minutes after the 11 a.m. outage began. Among the stores affected was Longs Drugs.

But for others, including those at Century Center, a mixed business and residential high-rise across Kapiolani Boulevard from the Hard Rock site, electricity was out until about 4 p.m.

Mike Baker, Century Center building manager, said the outage affected 293 units and between 500 and 600 tenants. Access to one elevator at each end of the tower was being provided by emergency generators, Baker said.

HECO spokesman Darren Pai said the incident caused a fuse to blow at HECO's McCully substation, across Pumehana Street from McCully Shopping Center and two blocks from the former restaurant. That caused several nearby customers to lose their power, Pai said.

Lamberlyn Cambra, who lives at a nearby apartment building, said she saw smoke and then two fireballs that she estimated reached 50 feet into the air.

A man ran out screaming from the back of the building and appeared to be burned from face to torso, Cambra said.

Cambra and Robert Zukerkorn, who witnessed the incident as he was driving by on his mo-ped, tried to help the man and called police.

An hour after the incident, Cambra was still shaken up by the sight of the burned man.

Zukerkorn heard a loud boom and said he thought people were demolishing the emptied building.

"His skin was just -- I don't even want to say it -- but it was almost like liquefied and dropping off of him," Zukerkorn said.

He described the man as just under 6 feet tall, in his 30s, and wearing a white T-shirt, beige shorts and black-and-white sneakers.

A woman was standing next to a blue sport utility vehicle that appeared to be a Ford Explorer, Zukerkorn said.

"Once she heard the sirens, she left," he said.

The complex at the historic location at Kapiolani Boulevard and Kalakaua Avenue, the former site of Coco's Coffee House and viewed by many as the gateway to Waikiki, was vacated when Hard Rock moved to its new Beachwalk location in the heart of Waikiki at the end of November.

Kapiolani Boulevard was shut down in both directions between Kalakaua Avenue and Pumehana Street.

Capt. Terry Seelig of the Honolulu Fire Department said there were reports of smoke coming from at least one of the manholes, a key reason the road was closed down.

Streets were reopened by 1 p.m.

The fence to the utility area was still locked when authorities got there, so it's possible the force of the explosion threw the man back over the fence, Seelig said.

"The condition he was in, it's hard to imagine he could have climbed back over," he said.

Pai cautioned the public to be cautious when around transformers and other electrical equipment.

"It doesn't really matter what you're doing," he said. "Just assume the lines are energized and potentially dangerous."

Kurihara estimated more than $20,000 in damage.

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