The annual test of the emergency warning system for the San Onofre nuclear power plant turned into tragedy Wednesday when a man, apparently disoriented by the wails of the sirens, was killed as he ran across Interstate 5, authorities said.
The accident occurred about 10:30 a.m. as authorities were completing their second and final test of the sirens, which are in cities near San Onofre and serve as a warning system in case of nuclear accidents.
The sirens also rattled scores of other South County residents, who peppered police and emergency switchboards with inquiries. But overall, officials said there seemed to be less panic among local residents than during previous tests.
The accident was the first fatality in the eight years officials at the nuclear plant have tested the emergency equipment, said David Barron, a spokesman for Southern California Edison Co., the utility that operates the nuclear plant.
"We've never experienced anything close to this," Barron said. He declined, however, to speculate on whether the accident would affect future emergency tests.
"We don't understand what has happened yet," Barron said. "Until there is more investigation, it will be difficult to determine what the connection is" between the accident and the test.
Authorities said they have identified the dead man but were withholding his name pending notification of relatives. Residents of a nearby condominium complex said they suspect the dead man may have been a homeless person who had been camping out in the area during recent weeks.
California Highway Patrol Officer Ken Daily said a motorist had called the CHP's dispatch center in San Juan Capistrano after he saw the victim running across the freeway. The man was wearing only brightly flowered swimming trunks and a pair of light-brown socks.
After reaching the freeway's western side, the man confronted an Edison electrician posted at a nearby siren.
The man yelled a question about the source of the noise, then pointed to the nearby Village San Juan condominium complex and said threateningly, "I'm staying over there and if there's any more noise, I'm coming back," according to Daily. He then attempted to cross the southbound lanes.
A CHP officer who was responding to the motorist's report arrived on the scene, sounded his siren and shouted at the pedestrian to stop. But the man ignored the officer's command and was struck in the fast lane by a car driven by a 75-year-old Pasadena man.
"He ran straight on to my car," said Ove Knud Fredrik Hansen. "He came from nowhere."
Daily said officers detected an odor of alcohol on the victim.
"It was bizarre," Daily said. "His behavior was so erratic and irrational that it is fair to explore the suspicion that he was under the influence of something."
Orange County coroner's officials said an autopsy, which will include toxicological tests to determine if the man was under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, was scheduled for today.
Residents of Village San Juan said the description matched that of a transient who had "camped out" in the complex for the past several weeks. Dave Dobrin, a maintenance worker at the condominium complex, said the man had begged residents for money and had told them that he was recently released from a hospital.
"He appeared to be down on his luck," Dobrin said. "The residents knew he was here, but because he wasn't harming anyone, we let him be."
Coroner's officials said they were experiencing difficulties finding relatives of the dead man. Daily said the victim was a white male, between 25 and 30 years old, about 5 feet, 10 inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes.
The sirens and the nuclear plant have long been a source of concern for some South County residents. When one of the sirens was accidentally tripped last January, some panic-stricken residents fled their houses.
In previous years, the siren tests have prompted South County residents to flood the telephone switchboards of local police and fire departments with inquiries about the source of the noise.
Eager to head off similar episodes, Edison mailed 81,000 postcards to area residents within the last two weeks warning them of the upcoming test.
Despite the company's warning, scores of telephone calls from residents cascaded into San Clemente City Hall moments after the sirens began sounding at 10 a.m.
"You were getting them in waves," police dispatcher Rob Topolski said. "We received between 70 to 100 calls. All the lines lit up--eight at a time."
Rita Mueller, a receptionist at City Hall, said she received at least 23 inquiries from frantic residents who wanted to "know whether it was the real thing." Many of the callers claimed they had not received the Edison notices, authorities said.
Despite the tragedy, Edison officials said the test went more smoothly than in previous years. All the systems worked properly, and the number of callers seemed to be smaller than before.
"Everything tested perfectly," Barron said. "There will always be people who may not get the notices, but we have to live with that. . . . It's one of our best tests ever."
Under a federal nuclear emergency plan, the 50 sirens are mounted on 50-foot poles throughout the cities of San Clemente, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in a 10-mile radius from the nuclear plant.
For the last six months, about 150 emergency personnel from Edison and designated cities have been planning for the test. In the event of a nuclear emergency, the sirens are meant to advise residents to tune to a radio or television for information.