ORINDA — Two men working as window-washers were set on fire and severely burned after they rode a cherry picker into a power line Saturday morning while stunned attendees of the Orinda Farmers Market watched in horror.
Two explosions and an arc of fire erupted above a parking lot when the bucket of the cherry picker veered into the high-voltage transmission line, causing a chaotic scene at the weekly outdoor market.
"I look up and see this ball of fire and smoke," said Russell Abraham, an Orinda resident who had come to the market to shop. "One guy was slumped over the controls, unconscious and on fire. The other guy was on his back on fire."
The men, who regained consciousness and spoke with firefighters as they were rescued, were airlifted from a field to the burn center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. They suffered second- and third-degree burns all across their bodies, said Battalion Chief Darrell Lee of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District.
"Their clothes burned off," he said. A burn unit nurse said the victims were in very critical condition late Saturday night.
The two men had been pressure-washing the windows of a three-story brick office building on Orinda Way, not far from the entrance to the farmers market, shortly before 10 a.m. After the explosion, many bystanders rushed to help but could do little to reach the men who were perched in a bucket raised nearly 30 feet above the Vintage Office Building parking lot. Abraham said the controls to the cherry picker "were cooked," making it impossible to steer the basket back down.
After the men, one of whom was bleeding, began to regain consciousness, witnesses said the victims began putting the fire out with their hands and by pulling off their own clothes.
"I can't get it out of my head right now. It was pretty brutal," said Brian Dawson, of Discovery Bay, who was working a booth at the market when he felt and heard the explosions.
"We tried to get water out there but there was just not enough pressure," Dawson said.
Several bystanders were critical of emergency crews for taking too long to get to the scene, and then waiting until PG&E crews could confirm that the lines were no longer carrying electricity before rescuing the men.
"It took them close to an hour before they even retrieved these guys," Abraham said.
The city-to-city transmission line the cherry picker hit carries more than 150,000 volts, fire officials said, and it was a challenge to rescue the men without causing more injuries to others.
"It was difficult to access the victims because the wires were still alive," Lee said. One live wire was still draped over the cherry picker and another on the ground when firefighters arrived at the scene, he said.
"We're dealing with high tension power lines here. We're not total experts with power lines," Lee said. "We have to wait for PG&E to shut off the power."
It also would have been dangerous to hose the men with water, Lee said, because water conducts electricity.
The rescue started about 10:30 a.m., shortly after PG&E crews arrived and tested to ensure no power was running through the transmission line, said utility spokesman Blair Jones.
Abraham, a longtime Orinda resident, said he hoped the two victims would survive.
"I hope they live. They got burned pretty bad," he said.
The incident left many customers of the farmers market and a nearby RiteAid store stranded for hours as firefighters closed off parking lots because of the downed wires. Power was restored along Orinda Way after a short outage.
California Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigators have opened a formal investigation into the incident, according to Orinda city officials.
To see video of the chaotic aftermath of the explosion, go to ContraCostaTimes.com/video.