A 17-year-old high school student was in critical condition Monday after being shocked by 220,000 volts while trying to rappel off a tower carrying Southern California Edison power lines near the Conejo Grade of the Ventura Freeway.
Michael Halsell received second- and third-degree burns over 70% to 80% of his body while standing on a narrow beam on the 175-foot-high tower.
Halsell was about to rappel down a rope that he and two climbing buddies had tied to the beam about 100 feet off the ground when he was hit by the current a little after 1 p.m.
“We just heard a huge explosion,” said Mike Palmer, 17, one of Halsell’s climbing partners.
The trio had taken a dirt fire road to the tower, which stands on a rocky peak along the highway. They had climbed together before but had never rappelled off a power line tower, Palmer said.
“We didn’t want to go all the way to the Santa Rosa Valley or up above Santa Paula to climb cliffs,” he said.
Halsell, a senior at Newbury Park High School, has about a year of climbing experience, Palmer said.
Palmer said he had just rappelled off the beam and was climbing back up the tower when Halsell either touched a coil leading off one of the power lines, or simply got too close to the line and the charge jumped to his body.
The jolt of electricity ignited Halsell’s clothing and blew the change out of his pockets, welding the coins to the beam.
“It blew his gloves off, his shirt, his glasses, his watch melted,” Palmer said.
The shirt and gloves floated to the ground and started a small brush fire. Palmer and Seth Haglund, 17, could see black smoke coming from the beam where their friend lay. They thought Halsell had been killed.
“Then he started trying to climb down,” Haglund said. “He was still on fire.”
Halsell’s harness and part of his pants were burning, and his hair and upper torso were black and smoldering, his friends said.
Worried that the disoriented Halsell would fall, they coaxed him back up to the beam, and Haglund ran about a mile to the California Highway Patrol weigh station for help.
When firefighters arrived, they had to wait about 90 minutes while a team of Southern California Edison workers grounded the power lines.
Ventura County Firefighter David Pumphrey cradled Halsell in his arms while the rest of the rescue team jury-rigged lines and pulleys to wrest Halsell from the beam.
While Pumphrey held Halsell, the team hoisted them off the beam and lowered them to the ground.
“He was in shock, but he was talking,” Pumphrey said. “I guess that’s a good sign. But he was in pretty bad shape.”
Halsell was taken by helicopter to Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks and was transferred late Monday to the Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital.