Family, Friends Hold Vigil for High-Voltage Tower Burn Victim

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Family and friends of Michael Halsell huddled in small groups at school and at a San Fernando Valley hospital Tuesday, holding vigil for the Newbury Park teen who lay critically burned and bandaged from head to toe, sedated to quell the pain.

About 15 friends clustered in the hallway of the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, each kneeling to add their inscriptions to a large poster that read, "We love U Mike, Stay Strong."

Doctors listed the 17-year-old's condition as extremely critical, but counted him lucky to be alive after he received a surge of up to 220,000 volts of electricity Monday while trying to practice rock-climbing techniques from a 175-foot tower carrying Southern California Edison power lines near the Ventura Freeway.

Doctors hoped they could begin this morning the arduous process of peeling off layers of the teenager's skin seared by third-degree burns. Doctors, however, were concerned late Tuesday that Michael may still be too ill to operate.

"This is a very strong young man," said Dr. Peter Grossman, a plastic surgeon at the burn center founded by his father, Dr. A. Richard Grossman. "This kind of injury would have killed 99 out of 100 people" immediately.

While Michael's mother, Bonnie, his brothers, Chris, 20, and John, 14, stayed nearby in the hospital, they declined to talk about him to reporters. Meanwhile, his friends tried to stay positive.

"He's very stubborn, and that's what's getting him through right now," said Lynn Jorden, 18, a student at Newbury Park High School. "I think he's going to pull through, because he's very strong."

Meanwhile, Michael's friends at Newbury Park High School, where he is a senior, met throughout the day, crying, hugging and talking quietly about the accident.

Grief counselors visited Michael's classes, telling his classmates that it's OK to be upset. Students painted a poster measuring 12 feet by 8 feet with the words "You're in Our Hearts, Mike," and displayed it in a classroom, where well-wishers came throughout the day to add personal messages and sign their names.

Students planned to give the sign to the family later.

"It's pretty somber here today," Principal Charles Eklund said. "Like everybody else, I'm just hoping and praying that he'll recover."

The accident occurred after Michael and two friends completed their regular half-day of classes on Monday, and drove to the high-voltage Edison tower near the Conejo Grade to practice rock-climb rappelling.

Mike Palmer, a more experienced climber than Michael Halsell, had already descended the rappelling rope tied to a horizontal beam of the tower about 100 feet off the ground. Seth Haglund had not climbed that day. The two boys were standing at the foot of the tower, waiting for Michael to descend when they heard an explosion.

They saw a stunned Michael on the beam overhead, lying on the beam with his clothing on fire. He later got up and tried to climb down a ladder, which ended 75 feet above the ground, his back still smoldering.

The boys told him to wait on the beam for help. Edison workers climbed the tower to disable the lines. Michael was then strapped to a rescue worker and the two were lowered to the ground, where Michael was taken to the hospital by helicopter.

Doctors believe the electric current entered Michael through his right hand and exited through his lower back, where his climbing harness fastened.

In most cases of electrical shock, the current takes the path of least resistance through the human body, Grossman said, avoiding major organs and searing tissue and muscle instead.

"As the current goes through there, it basically cooks the tissues from the inside," Grossman said. He later added that if Michael becomes well enough for surgery, the doctors would be able to better determine the extent of his injuries.

Although Michael was on a respirator to breathe Tuesday afternoon, his kidneys were functioning and his temperature had returned from 90 degrees back to normal. Doctors were still battling against low blood pressure--a problem typical with severe burn victims.

Edison officials said Tuesday that the teens had trespassed on property Edison leases and had illegally climbed a company-owned tower. But spokeswoman Millie Paul said Edison does not usually file charges against trespassers in such cases, adding that the matter was still under investigation.

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Despite its danger, the tower is not labeled with a warning sign. Because it is in a remote site--10 miles off the main road and behind a locked gate--the Public Utilities Commission does not require a warning sign, Paul said.

Rock climbers in Ventura County said using utility towers for rappelling is hardly a common practice. Rosie Andrews, an expert rock climber and a human resources official for Patagonia Inc. in Ventura, said most climbers consider rappelling a necessary evil, not something to be sought out for fun. It is the challenge of the ascent and the skill it requires that rock-climbing enthusiasts treasure most, she said.

"Rappelling is a skill that you learn as part of climbing because it enables you to get down," she said. "It's the time when you're completely dependent on your equipment."

She likened rappelling off a tower more to a sport such as bungee jumping than rock climbing.

Mike Palmer said Monday that he, Michael and Seth had rappelled from the tower before, because it is much closer to their homes than the cliffs behind Santa Paula or those in the Santa Rosa Valley.

Miller is a Times staff writer; Baker is a Times correspondent.

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