What happened at a Berkeley hotel after a toxic chemical suicide

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

BERKELEY – Something was definitely amiss when I returned to my hotel Tuesday afternoon after an interview on the UC Berkeley campus.

At least three big firetrucks were blocking the street in front of the Berkeley City Club, a historic women’s club converted into a hotel just south of campus on Durant Avenue. The street was closed by yellow police tape. Berkeley police officers redirected traffic. I ditched my car in a loading zone and ducked under the tape.

A fireman standing next to his truck told me there was a “hazardous materials” situation going on, but that I was free to enter the building.


I walked up the hotel steps and encountered the elegant hotel general manager, Michaela Winn, standing at the foot of the sweeping staircase, her arms folded, a tense look on her face.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a situation,” she replied. “Everything is fine.”

I walked up the broad staircase to the second floor, then into the stairwell to get to my room on the fourth floor. Yellow police tape festooned the stairwell. The third floor had been blocked off entirely.

A policeman greeted me: “Hi. How are you?”

“I’d be better if I knew what was going on.”

“It’s a suicide,” he said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” I said, climbing past him, wondering for a second whether someone was not telling the truth. It was either a hazardous materials situation or a suicide. It did not occur to me that it could be both.

But I had a story to file. The Oakland Raiders had finally responded to a wage-theft lawsuit filed by two of their Raiderettes cheerleaders in January. They said the women had forfeited their right to sue when they signed their contract, which requires arbitration before the NFL commissioner. I knew the San Francisco Chronicle had the story too. I was trying to beat the competition.

Half an hour later, just as I was finishing my story, someone knocked at my door. It was Trevor Johnson, the hotel’s operations manager, with a very apologetic look. Sorry, he said, the police have asked us to evacuate the building.

“I’m on deadline,” I said. “I just need a couple minutes.”

Johnson was nice, but he looked worried as he glanced down the hallway toward a couple of police officers. I decided not to be a jerk. I gathered my things and walked out holding my laptop, digital voice recorder, notebook and purse.

I didn’t notice that my iPhone had slid off my desk onto the carpet. Without my iPhone’s wireless hot spot, I probably would not be able to transmit my story. Oh, well. Good for you, @SFGate.

City Club staff and guests had gathered across the street on the lawn of a Victorian home. Some sat on the curb under a tree. It was a typical emergency situation. Something bad, possibly very bad, had happened. But no one knew anything. Or no one who knew anything was talking.

That changed about 15 minutes later, when a Berkeley police officer came over to brief us. I thought that was pretty good crisis management.

I turned on my voice recorder. What she told us was alarming.

“The situation has evolved a little bit and we’re using a lot of caution because we certainly want the City Club and guests and staff to have a comfortable situation when you go back inside,” said Officer Mary Kusmiss. “That said, there is a chemical that the Fire Department brought outside from one of the rooms, and it has the potential to be volatile, which means if you shake it too much or if it gets static electricity, it can blow up.

“Prior to 15 minutes or half an hour ago, we were only concerned about the chemical being deadly on your skin or inhaling it, but now it has the potential to blow up – a small chance, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt.

“Our bomb squad is coming with our robot, which you will get to see, they will put it in a big metal vat and they’ll drive it way…. And then you can return to whatever you were doing before we got here.”

“What can you say about the suicide?” I asked.

“It was a woman. It was her 71st birthday today.”

Kusmiss told us the woman had ingested something called sodium azide.

Wikipedia says sodium azide is a colorless salt that is the “gas-forming component” in many car airbag systems and airplane escape chutes.

“Sodium azide,” the online encyclopedia says, “is a severe poison. It may be fatal in contact with skin or if swallowed. Even minute amounts can cause symptoms. The toxicity of this compound is comparable to that of soluble alkali cyanides and the lethal dose for an adult human is about 0.7 grams. No toxicity has been reported from spent airbags.”

Wednesday afternoon, the Daily Cal identified the woman as Sydney Kustu of Berkeley. A desk clerk told me she’d never seen her before Monday.

[Updated 8:45 a.m. PDT, March 20: The website Berkeleyside reported that Kustu was a professor emerita in plant and microbial biology in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.]

[Updated 3:55 p.m. PDT, March 20: In an emailed statement from Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, one of Kustu’s former colleagues described her as “an eminent scholar and one of the world’s leading microbiologists.” The statement said she was best known for her “seminal contributions” on the responses of intestinal bacteria to nutrient limitations. “Sydney Kustu made order out of the chaotic complexity of the genetics of the system,” wrote her former colleague, Bob B. Buchanan. She was also described as a generous mentor to younger colleagues, and a teacher who was beloved by her undergraduate students.]

What an awful way to go. What a terrible thing to inflict on strangers, and on the hotel. And yet she must have been a thoughtful person. According to police, she had left a note on her door warning of the poison inside.

She chose a serene and beautiful place to end it all. And maybe that was the point.

The Berkeley City Club is a special place, a real gem where you wouldn’t expect to find one. It was designed by the acclaimed California architect Julia Morgan, who also designed Hearst Castle. Nicknamed “the little castle,” the City Club is a 1929 stone masterpiece with Moorish and Romanesque touches like high vaulted ceilings, stone floors and enclosed gardens. The indoor pool is gorgeous, with a beamed ceiling studded with graceful arches.

My room, 404, had a foyer, two closets and a bathtub you could get lost in. West-facing rooms on the higher floors have spectacular views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County. People happily forgo air conditioning and television sets in the rooms because the nightly rate is only $145, breakfast included.

I left for a dinner appointment. By the time I got back around 9:30 p.m., the hotel looked like it was back to normal.

Wednesday morning, I wandered down to the third floor. Room 307 had been blocked off with more yellow police tape. One strip was taped to the door horizontally, one vertically. Just like a cross.

“Temporarily out of order,” said a sign on the door. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”


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Twitter: @robinabcarian