Oktoberfest at Old World Village’s German Restaurant in Huntington Beach was back in business Wednesday night with a flood of support after explosions in an electrical vault over the weekend injured five people and brought the celebration to a halt.
Among the two firefighters and three workers injured Saturday night was the restaurant owner, Bernie Bischof, who suffered second- and third-degree burns on 41% of his body after he led firefighters to an area of the patio that he had previously cordoned off after noticing an unusual odor coming from the underground vault. At the time, about 8 p.m., the restaurant was filled with 1,000 people, or about two-thirds of the night’s expected turnout.
An explosion ripped off the vault’s 50-pound door and threw burning materials into the air. It was quickly followed by a second explosion, according to the Huntington Beach Fire Department.
Bischof completed his first surgery Wednesday and remains hospitalized, said Michael Parry, an attorney for the Bischof family.
The fire in the patio area was extinguished within 10 minutes, and the restaurant sustained no structural damage, according to Dan Escamilla, a member of the restaurant’s management team. But Oktoberfest was canceled Sunday and the restaurant was closed through Tuesday, according to its website.
Southern California Edison said that it replaced the three transformers in the vault and that the cause of the explosions is under investigation.
Oktoberfest was buzzing Wednesday — usually the slowest night for the five-day-a-week festival.
“This is crazy,” said Ken Kotchnik, a Huntington Beach resident who owns and operates several concession stalls flanking the restaurant’s outdoor patio at 7561 Center Ave. Kotchnik attributed the enthusiastic turnout to “love and support” for Bischof and the longtime Huntington Beach establishment.
Kotchnik, a business partner with Bischof for more than 20 years, was on the patio selling black T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Bernie is the Old World hero.”
Escamilla said over the weekend: “I have no doubt that if Bernie hadn’t cleared the area when he noticed the smell, people would’ve lost their lives. There would have been 30 to 40 people in that area if he had not done that.”
Kotchnik said that when he visited his business partner in the hospital, Bischof told him: “The show must go on. We are going to make it happen.”
Early Wednesday afternoon, Bischof’s sister, Cyndie Kasko, had the idea of making shirts to show support for Bischof, Kotchnik said.
Two hundred freshly pressed shirts were available for the reopening at 6:30 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from the $20 shirts will go toward the people injured Saturday, Kotchnik said.
The Bischof family is “very happy for everyone who has shown so much love and support,” Parry said.
Bischof’s father developed the Old World Village complex in the late 1970s, complete with shops and Bavarian-style restaurant and bar. The annual Oktoberfest tradition began in 1978.
Huntington Beach Mayor Erik Peterson, who was enjoying food and drink in the lively banquet hall, attributed the support Wednesday to Bischof’s spirit and generosity.
“He does so much for the community,” said Peterson, who noted Bischof’s willingness to open the space to local groups for events several times a year. “He never says no.”
A handmade banner beside the dance floor, which was occupied almost entirely by twirling children, read, “HB loves Old World! Get well soon, Bernie.”
Chelsie Marquez, who attended Wednesday with her son, Casey Coffman, said she has been going to Old World’s Oktoberfest for about 40 years.
Marquez, who was wearing a blue traditional Bavarian dress called a dirndl that was bought in Germany, usually goes on Wednesday or Thursday nights, when the crowds are smaller and admission is free.
“It feels like a family,” Marquez said.
She said she knows Bischof from Alpine Village in Torrance, where she danced from 1968 to 1974.
“It’s a peek into my mother’s early years,” said her son, Coffman.
Sclafani writes for Times Community News.