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COSTA MESA : Man Hurt in Freak Fireball Accident

A telephone maintenance worker was set afire early Friday morning by a freak fireball that burst from a manhole when his partner lifted the cover, police said.

Michael R. Gramer, 33, of Bakersfield suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of his body in the 5 a.m. accident, Costa Mesa Police Lt. Gary Webster said. He was in critical condition at the UCI Medical Center burn ward in Orange, hospital spokeswoman Fran Tardiff said.

Gramer and co-worker Brad J. Stone, employees of subcontractor Volt Information Sciences Inc. of Orange, had been sent to inspect the underground telephone-cable vault at 18th Street and Pomona Avenue. The company is under contract with Pacific Bell.

As Stone used a tool to pull off the cover, Gramer leaned forward to peer inside the dark hole, Webster said.

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Without warning, a spark from the metal manhole cover ignited volatile gases that had apparently accumulated in the vault over time.

The fireball that exploded out of the vault engulfed Gramer, burning off his clothes and melting his pager and a knife that he carried, Webster said, adding:

“He really took the brunt of the fireball.”

Stone, who suffered slight facial burns, began rolling his partner on the ground to extinguish the flames. Witnesses initially thought that the two men were fighting and called police to report a disturbance.

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When Sgt. Burt Santee arrived, he grabbed Gramer, put him in the back seat of his squad car and rushed him to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, where he was stabilized and transferred to the medical center, Webster said.

"(Santee) took one look at the guy and decided not to wait for an ambulance,” Webster said.

Rita MacFarlane, director of human resources at Volt, said all company employees who work near or in manholes are outfitted with a meter that measures the gas concentration in the area.

“Standard operating procedure is that they test to see if there is gas before taking off a (manhole) lid or entering into an area. I would assume that standard procedure was invoked,” she said, but added that the company was still investigating the incident.

Representatives from Southern California Gas Co. conducted tests at the site and determined the gas was natural methane and that it did not come from any of its pipelines. Gas company crew leader Felix Metoyer described it as just a “freak methane buildup,” and said that little trace of the gas was found after the explosion.

Gas company crews tested the gas-meter area of the Daisy Apartments, just 20 feet from the explosion, to make sure that it was free of natural methane.

“We do know that there are certain areas that do have problems with this type of gas buildup. And this area does have a lot of oil-well activity,” Perry said.

The underground area contains trunk lines for telephone connections from one area to another, such as from Fullerton to San Clemente.

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Gramer, who is married, has been a splicer with Volt since February 1989, his employer said. “Never to my knowledge have we had an accident like this before. There is a certain risk in any job; however, we have procedures to minimize accidents,” Norma Kraus, vice president of human resources for Volt, said.


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