San Diego Hotel Under Construction Damaged by Apparent Blast

By: Allison Hoffman AP
By: Allison Hoffman AP

SAN DIEGO (AP) - An apparently accidental explosion felt throughout downtown rocked a Hilton hotel under construction Monday and 14 workers were injured, five critically, authorities said.

Three of the five critical patients were in a hospital burn unit and eight other victims had serious-to-minor injuries, said fire spokesman Maurice Luque.

Injuries ranged from burns to impacts of flying debris, he said. However, the building did not burn, he said.

UCSD Medical Center was treating 10 injured, said Dr. Irving Jacoby, attending emergency room physician. Three were in the burn unit, one with burns over 35 percent of his body.

"They talked about a bright light and an intense heat," said Dr. Bruce Potenza of the hospital's burn unit.

San Diego Deputy Fire-Rescue Chief Perry Peake said the blast appeared to be "some sort of mechanical failure or gas explosion."

"We want to rule out all possibilities before making an official report, but we're pretty confident that's how it's going to come out," he said.

The blast happened in a "mechanical area" of the building containing gas, electric and other utilities, Peake said.

The blast damaged floors four through seven of the building, Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

The hotel near the San Diego Convention Center showed serious damage and debris littered a driveway beneath one corner of the structure. Facade material dangled from the structure, drapes dangled out windows, and a large equipment room with tanks and pipes was left exposed.

Firefighters searched the building to determine if there were any other victims. More than 400 construction workers were at the site at the time, Sanders said.

The site was surrounded by firefighters and utility crews, and a truck with the markings of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived.

Bruce Ragland, who runs an entry gate at the Petco Park baseball stadium about 200 yards from the hotel, said he was looking right at the building when the explosion blew through two sides and there was a strong shock wave.

"It was just like watching a Bruce Willis movie, like you know, 'Die Hard,"' Ragland said.

Matt McBride, general manager of the Tin Fish bar about 150 yards away, said he was setting up the outdoor patio bar when the explosion happened. He said he and other workers froze as they saw smoke come out of the building but no flames.

"It looked like a bomb," McBride said. "It shook the whole building like a bomb. The reverb was what scared us. Everybody was saying bomb, bomb, bomb, terrorist, terrorist, terrorist."

Joerg Steiner, a veterinarian from College Station, Texas, said he was inside the convention center when he heard an explosion.

"There was a big bang and then the room went silent. I realized later when I went to a balcony that a corner of the (adjacent) building was missing," Steiner said.

The 30-story Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel was scheduled to open in December, according to Hilton's Web site. It will have 1,190 rooms and more than 165,000 square feet of meeting space.

Hilton Hotels Corp. has not taken possession of the hotel from the builder, Hensel Phelps Construction Co., said Karima Zaki, the hotel's vice president for new development. She said it was too early to know if the hotel will open on schedule.

A woman who answered the phone at Greeley, Colo.-based Hensel
Phelps' Southern California regional headquarters referred questions to executives at the site, who were not immediately available. Hensel Phelps officials did not immediately respond to questions sent by e-mail.

The Padres baseball team, which plays at Petco Park, planned to host the St. Louis Cardinals Monday night, as scheduled, said Sandy Alderson, the team's chief executive officer.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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