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Copper theft suspected in McCully explosion, outage

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A copper theft gone awry may have been the cause of an electrical explosion at the former Hard Rock Cafe site in McCully this morning, critically injuring a man and cutting power to about 450 customers in the McCully-Kapiolani area.

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

A 33-year-old man was taken to Straub Hospital and Clinic in critical condition with burns, said Dr. Jim Ireland, director of the city Department of Emergency Services.

HECO spokesman Darren Pai said the incident at the Hard Rock Cafe caused a fuse to blow at HECO’s McCully substation, located across Pumehana Street from McCully Shopping Center two blocks from the abandoned night spot. 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 which 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 utillity vehicle that appeared to be Ford Explorer, Zukerkorn said. “Once she heard the sirens, she left,” he said.

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

Power was fully restored nearly five hours after the 11 a.m. outage.

Power came back to two to three stores at Ala Moana Center between 15 to 30 minutes after the outage began. Among the stores affected was Long Drugs.

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 500 to 600 tenants. One elevator at each end of the tower was being powered by emergency generators, Baker said.

The complex at the historic location at Kapiolani Boulevard and Kalakaua Avenue, viewed by many as the gateway to Waikiki, was vacated late last year when Hard Rock moved to its new Beachwalk location in the heart of Waikiki at the end of November.

Kapiolani 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 why the road was closed down.

Streets that were initially closed following the incident 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 forced him back over the fence, Seelig said.

“The condition he was in, it’s hard to imagine he could have climbed back over,” he said.

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