A fire crew arrived just after 8 p.m. Saturday at Old World Village’s German Restaurant in Huntington Beach, where an Oktoberfest celebration was in full swing. The restaurant owner, Bernie Bischof, led two firefighters to a patio area, which he’d cordoned off from patrons a few minutes earlier after smelling a strange odor emanating from an underground electrical vault that held three transformers.
A week earlier, he’d heard unfamiliar noises coming from the vault.
As Bischof, two of his staff members and the firefighters approached the vault, an explosion tore off its 50-pound door and knocked them to the ground, said Jeff Lopez, a battalion chief for the Huntington Beach Fire Department.
“Our firefighters had to literally pick themselves up off the ground and figure out what was going on,” Lopez said Sunday morning. The explosion had thrown a burning material — believed to be mineral oil from inside the transformers — into the air, burning the firefighters, Bischof, a server and a security guard.
They scarcely had time to get up and realize what was happening when a second explosion rocked the Bavarian-style restaurant “a minute or so later,” Lopez said.
The cause of the explosions was unclear, and the incident remains under investigation, Southern California Edison spokeswoman Susan Cox said Monday.
After the blasts, Bischof ran out of the patio and into the restaurant, where two security guards wrapped him in a tablecloth to smother the flaming oil that clung to his arms, legs, flank and head, according to Dan Escamilla, a member of the restaurant’s management team who was tapped as its spokesman after the explosions.
Of the two firefighters and three civilians who were hospitalized Saturday night, all but one civilian had been released by Sunday, Lopez said. He declined to identify the hospitalized civilian, citing privacy concerns. But Escamilla said the person was Bischof, who he said was in critical condition at UCI Medical Center in Orange, having suffered second- and third-degree burns on 38% of his body.
“Bernie is a hero and is fighting for his life,” his sister, Cyndie Kasko, said in a Facebook post.
Jim Osuna, who identified himself as Bischof’s friend, said the restaurant owner has been raising two young sons on his own after his wife died.
“They’re still struggling with their mom passing, and now with this happening to Bernie, it’s tough for the family,” Osuna said.
Osuna added that Bischof is “a strong guy, and he’ll bounce back.”
The restaurant sustained no structural damage, and the fire in the patio area was extinguished within 10 minutes, Escamilla said.
The blasts shattered the beery euphoria of Oktoberfest. It was the busiest weekend of the year for Bischof’s restaurant, which at the time of the explosion was filled with 1,000 people, or two-thirds the night’s expected turnout, Escamilla said.
Josef Bischof — Bernie Bischof’s father — came to the United States from Germany in 1952 and developed the enclave of Bavarian-style restaurants, shops and bars on Center Avenue known as Old World Village in the late 1970s. Its inaugural Oktoberfest celebration was held in 1978.
Southern California Edison replaced the three transformers that were in the restaurant’s vault, according to Robert Villegas, a company spokesman. An Edison crew initially had to wait Saturday night to enter the vault because police were concerned that the explosions may have been caused by criminal activity, Villegas said.
Those concerns weren’t borne out, however, and Edison was able to replace the transformers overnight and restore power by 9 a.m. Sunday to about 300 customers who were left without it overnight, Villegas said. In all, about 1,700 Edison customers lost power for hours after the explosions.
The restaurant’s website said it was closed Sunday through Tuesday but that the Oktoberfest celebration would reopen Wednesday.
Old World Village management declined to comment.
Glenis Peters said she was standing in line waiting to get into one of the venues Saturday night when she saw “a ball of flame that came up,” followed by two more.
“Everyone just panicked and just started running every which way,” Peters said. “It was just chaos.”
She said her friend grabbed her hand and the two ran away.
“It was really scary; you can feel the heat from it,” Peters said. “It was a huge ball of flame.”
One of the transformers beneath the restaurant exploded in June 2010, according to Escamilla; the blast occurred early in the morning and no one was injured, he said.
The transformers were making “strange noises” as recently as a week ago, which Bischof had asked Edison to look into, Escamilla said.
“Edison sent someone to check and they signed off on it,” he said. “Edison dropped the ball on this, simply put.”
Villegas, the Edison spokesman, said the company was still gathering maintenance records for the transformers and had no immediate comment.
Lopez, the battalion chief, said the strange odor that prompted the restaurant’s staff to call the Fire Department was probably mineral oil overheating inside the transformers. He credited the staff for clearing the area of patrons, which he said limited the number of injuries to a handful.
“On a Saturday night, especially an Oktoberfest night, there’s a lot of people in that restaurant,” Lopez said. “It could’ve been a lot worse.”
Three and a half hours before the transformers exploded, a family was celebrating a 1-year-old’s birthday at a long table “two feet from the vault,” Escamilla said.
“I have no doubt that if Bernie hadn’t cleared the area when he noticed the smell, people would’ve lost their lives,” Escamilla said. “There would have been 30 to 40 people in that area if he had not done that.”
He described the evacuation of patrons as “fast and orderly,” largely because there had been a threat directed Thursday at a nearby movie theater screening “Joker.”
“We were already on high alert,” Escamilla said.
Matthew Ormseth writes for the Los Angeles Times. KTLA and Daily Pilot staff contributed to this report.