PG&E Transformer Explodes, Injuring 2 as Blackout Darkens Cortlandia


Many South Bernal resident experienced a blackout of much of the day on Saturday, after a PG&E power surge took down part of the local grid. Neighbor Esther was reporting live from the scene:

At Wool and Eugenia this morning. Two loud pops and flashes. Fire dept is here. Live wire hanging down to shoulder level in intersection. Red hot little wire up above. Yikes! Overheard a comment about a power surge that caused this.

Yikes is right. Here’s Neighbor Esther’s photo of a red-hot wire cooking above Eugenia:


Blackouts are a nuisance, but unfortunately this outage actually caused injuries, as the power surge triggered a transformer explosion on tiny Heyman Avenue, several blocks away.

Benny Evangelista from  The San Francisco Chronicle covered it:

Robert Antonelli, 55, was at the window of his Heyman Avenue home about 7:45 a.m. talking to a friend, Manuel Cruz, 34, of Daly City, who was standing outside, when he heard what sounded like a firecracker’s wick sizzling.

“And the next thing, ka-boom,” Antonelli said. “It exploded like a bomb. It blew things off my shelf. I flew back into my bed. Debris flew back into my room.”

Antonelli said Cruz, who was standing next to the transformer, was knocked out, and both men were taken to San Francisco General Hospital. Antonelli said he was treated for light burns on his face and released, but Cruz was more seriously burned and remained hospitalized.

The hospital did not immediately return a call seeking information about Cruz’s condition.

PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman confirmed that two men were injured after an equipment failure that occurred while a utility crew was at Wool Street and Eugenia Avenue, working to fix a power failure that began about 7:30 a.m.

Terrible. Get well soon, Neighbor Bobby and Manuel Cruz!

UPDATE: In the comments, Neighbor Esther shares more information about the injured:

I spoke to Neighbor Bobby later on Saturday after he was released from the hospital. He suffered light burns over his face and he said his lungs were still hurting and that is also hurt for him to talk. Manuel’s injuries were more serious, apparently he has severe burns all over his body but initial reports indicate his eyesight and hearing are ok. Best wishes for both men recovering soon!

Esther also reminds us that another PG&E transformer exploded nearby, on Coleridge, a little more than a year ago. Bernalwood has sent a series of questions to PG&E to understand more about the history and inspection procedures for this infrastructure. Stay tuned.

PHOTOS: PG&E crew working at Wool and Eugenia, courtesy of Neighbor Esther

16 thoughts on “PG&E Transformer Explodes, Injuring 2 as Blackout Darkens Cortlandia

  1. Those poor guys. I hope Mr. Cruz will be all right. I sure heard the boom on Saturday. I had just stepped outside to check on the block’s power outage (it was already out at 7am), and BOOM. It’s an unmistakeable sound. I was clear up on Andover, and it sounded like it was just a half-block away.

  2. Bob Antonelli (called here, “Neighbor Robtert”) has been a fixture in BH his entire life. He’s quite a character.

  3. I’m not convinced it was a power surge. A power surge would knock out a circuit breaker before the amperage gets high enough to blow up a transformer.

    I suspect it was an old transformer that was kept in place beyond its useful life. The heat dissipated by a transformer eventually wears out the insulation on the wires inside the unit and eventually they will short. Typically the life of a transformer is about 30 years, but PG&E has been known to leave transformers in place for 50 years.

  4. I live on Heyman, but am visiting family back east–does anyone have any details as to whether the transformer that blew was below ground or on a utility pole? The news reports (and NextDoor accounts) were ambiguous…and my catsitter isn’t familiar enough w/ the block to know. Thanks, and wishing a speedy recovery to everyone injured!

  5. I live in Bernal and work in San Rafael. We just had a transformer blow about an hour ago up here in San Rafael. I hope nobody was hurt – but the power is out for miles.

    You’d think that an awful tragedy like San Bruno would force PG&E to ensure that all of it’s infrastructure is safe. It’s really scary and maddening that it is not the case.

    • PRIOR TO 1996 California utilities were guaranteed a rate of return. I think it was 10% per year. So, they spent whatever they needed to spend to keep their equipment working properly, cut back overgrown trees, etc. Then the state PUC with the endorsement of the utilities changed the plan. The PUC set a rate charge for each utility and the utility would take its profit out of any money left over between their income and their expenses. This led to PG&E, AT&T, and other utilities to “defer maintenance” (aka not do any maintenance) and squeeze every nickel and dime out of their infrastructure that they could. This led to overgrown trees shorting out power lines, customer service cutbacks, repair crew cutbacks (prior to 1996 you could usually get power or phone restored within 8 hours, today it can take DAYS). So, blame today’s problems on the state PUC kowtowing to the utilities and not standing up for the consumers whom they’re SUPPOSED to protect.

  6. I live half a block up and it sounded like 2 trains were crashing into each other when that transformer blew! The transformer is located below ground and is less than 100 yards away from the below ground transformer outside my apt that caught on fire last year. This is very worrying.

    I spoke to Neighbor Bobby later on Saturday after he was released from the hospital. He suffered light burns over his face and he said his lungs were still hurting and that is also hurt for him to talk. Manuel’s injuries were more serious, apparently he has severe burns all over his body but initial reports indicate his eyesight and hearing are ok. Best wishes for both men recovering soon!

    • Thank you for this update, and for checking in on Neighbor Bobby and Manuel. Please keep us posted!

      I will follow up with PG&E to get a better sense of WTF is going on with the transformers.

  7. Terrible! I hope they get better soon.
    Question: I live on the South East side of Precita Park, not far from the Cafe’. At around 1:15 AM Saturday morning we heard a loud explosion – BOOM! – so much louder than a firework! it was like a house had exploded. Did anyone else hear the explosion at that time? Could have been related? I haven’t been able to find out what it was and it’s really bugging me. it scared the heck out of me.

    • I heard it too, about a block away from the other side of the park. No idea what it was but it was very loud.

  8. I wish these incidents would help get the wires under-grounded in the central set of blocks above Cortland. Unfortunately this project seems frozen in a thirty year old agreement between the city and PG&E that set up a funding mechanism that is now exhausted.

  9. Although there are other reasons for transformer failure, the one I encounter most is caused by a simple economic choice by PG&E.

    Crews used to hot wash the transformers on a schedule, to remove accumulated dust. To save money, they stopped washing the transformers (or greatly increased time between regular washings). Sandy, salty dirt builds up. Whenever relative humidity is high (every day in SF?) the wet dirt shorts across the transformer. Voila: explosions and fires.

    It is cheaper to let the Fire Dept. and the insanely reduced maintenance crews put out the fires than to do the maintenance that would prevent them. (As an example of insanely reduced crews: if a transformer flames at night, it can take 45 minutes to an hour for the on-call linesman to respond from home.)

    And speaking of the San Bruno pipeline disaster: I haven’t run the numbers, but I’ think it would be very interesting to compare the total amount PG&E paid out for the disaster to what prevention and maintenance activity over the years would have cost. Accountants have concluded that the cost of the occasional disaster (including the dollar value the court says each victim is worth) is cheaper than employing people to prevent and maintain.

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