Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Roundtable: Junior Seau, Daniel Chong, Blackout Report

May 4, 2012 12:21 p.m.

Guests: Jay Paris, sports columnist, North County Times

Jeff McDonald, UT San Diego

Morgan Lee, UT, San Diego

Related Story: Roundtable: Junior Seau, Daniel Chong, Blackout Report

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Friday, May†4th. Each Friday, we discuss the biggest San Diego stories of the week on Midday Edition Roundtable. And we'll be taking your calls.

Joining me today at the Roundtable, jay Paris, sports columnist for the North County Times. Welcome.

PARIS: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Jeff McDonald with the UT San Diego. Welcome back.

MCDONALD: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Morgan Lee, reporter with UT San Diego.

LEE: Hello.

CAVANAUGH: The top story in San Diego this week was the death of football greater, Junior Seau. 43 year-old Junior Seau was found in his Oceanside home Wednesday morning dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Jay, we talked on air this week about this. When I talked to people on air this week about how they were taking the news, are the answers I got were speechless, shocked, numb. Is that the same response you've heard?

PARIS: It's the response I've heard, and it's the response I've felt. I covered junior from 1992 till he left here. And you're not supposed to get that close to the athletes, and we don't. But junior was a little special and a little different. And so many San Diego stars either grow up here and go somewhere else and be stars or they're stars first and then they come here. Junior was that rare commodity that he was a star here when he was 16 years old, and he went on and played up the road at USC, but then he was a star here. And San Diego has such a lack of championship teams that maybe the fans gravitate to those athletes. And that's why this one has left such a void. You think you're past it, and just drive in today, I saw on the overpass a heart with a 55 in the middle, and it boils up again.

CAVANAUGH: What do Oceanside police say about what happened?

PARIS: As far as we can learn, it was a self-inflicted wound, obviously. And they say, well, there wasn't a suicide note. Yes, there was. He shot himself in the chest. People that commit suicide rarely do that because there's no guarantee you could hit a rib cage or something. But that was his note to others to say, look at my brain. Look at what football maybe did to me. How can we help other kids? How can we move this such? As much a violent game, and the technology, the equipment now, and the speed and the strength of the athlete, there's different dynamics at play here, and Mr. Seau left his brain in tact to have it studied down the road.

CAVANAUGH: As you point out, the medical examiner officially confirmed the cause of death last night as suicide. Is the family then donating Seau's brain to science?

PARIS: Yes, that's the latest. There's a couple brain institutes, one in Boston which has done some work previously, and another research entity. And the Seaus have given that permission to have it studied down the road.

CAVANAUGH: There were incidents we heard about -- over the last few years, accusations of domestic abuse, heap drove his car off a cliff in 2010. Do you think we were seeing sort of a timeline of a man's mental breakdown?

PARIS: Possibly. And I know after the car went over the side there in Carlsbad, people did reach out to junior. I'm not sure how much success they had. I think a lot of it is connected to that football mentality. And also he was a very, very proud Samoan, and that is a warrior culture in its own. And for one of those guys to raise their hand and say, hey, I need some help here, that usually doesn't happen very often. I think the warning signs were there, that said, he was always the brightest personality in every room he was in. And it's a complete shock.

CAVANAUGH: If you have thoughts and concerns about Junior Seau's death this week, you can give us a call. I want to move the conversation to the connection between suicide, depression, and head injuries. It's a big topic now for people in sports. How do you think this fits in?

PARIS: Well, I think you'd be ignorant not to think it didn't have some kind of role. Go outside to your garage door and run your head into that door. And they did that 70, 80 plays a game, 20 games a year for 20 years. It's not ballet. And with the force he's guys are hitting with today, I think -- and the equipment that they're hitting with, it leaves a mark. And it's such an opposite of the whole football culture, though. That's what it's all about, hitting hard, and seeing how much pain you can inflict, and that's why a lot of the fans are saying why are they trying to soften the game down? Why are these rules coming into place? The National Football League is scared to death. Over 1,500 players have lawsuits against the league and concussions, and they weren't warned of it or weren't treated in an appropriate matter maybe. There are some big changes going on out there, and a guy as big as Junior Seau is going to push a lot of this into the forefront.

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, I've read some stories that said this may be the incident that actually changes football. What have you been hearing about that?

MCDONALD: Well, not a lot. But I do know that he's a lot higher profile than the last athlete to shoot himself in the chest. So far I think tell be a wake-up call for the NFL to take these claims a lot more seriously.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think, Jay, that 20 years in the NFL is just too much for anybody?

PARIS: It would seem so. And I think we have to be clear, especially at his position. If you're a wide receiver, you're running route, if you're a quarterback, you get hit occasionally. And stan Humphreys, are the Chargers great super bowl quarterback, was chased from the came for the same reason. But when you're a middle linebacker, you're in the middle of the mess. And the number of hit, and the speed he's hitting with, where the linemen are in close proximity to each other, when they hit, he's got a good head of steam, and the other guy's got a good head of steam, and see where it leads.

CAVANAUGH: Morgan?

LEE: Well, I'm just struck by his disposition off the field. And that may make it more of a test case. It's someone who wasn't necessarily living fast to die young. And so now that raises new questions about his health and what science can tell us now.

CAVANAUGH: And how secretively this brain injury, if indeed that's what he was suffering from, can manifest itself. It's not an all the time thing. It brings on depression, and it increases with age is what we've been hearing from people who suffer from these kind was brain injuries.

PARIS: That's true. And people say, my goodness, he was only 43. Those were 20 years of NFL 43. It's not the years, it's the mileage on the body.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a call. DJ artistic from San Diego is calling us. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for having me. Can you hear me okay?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can.

NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to say my condolences to the Seau family and everyone in the community of the it's such a terrible loss. And me being a father, no disrespect whatsoever, I kind of feel like it's a tad bit selfish. I know unexplainable right now, and we're going to study his brain and things like that. But I do feel a little bit bit selfish based on the support system that he was a pillar for, and his offspring and family, and you how they depended on him, it just tore everyone up and San Diego apart. And when I talked my friends and my peers, we all kind of came to a realization that it's a little bit selfish for one to take their own life. Especially when they have a support system and a family that depends on them, and a community that's really there for them and I don't mean any disrespect whatsoever.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, we get your point entirely. Thank you very much for the call.

PARIS: Selfish, but somebody in their right mind might come to that conclusion. If your mind is scrambled, are if the brain waves aren't connecting, maybe you don't connect those dots. Of course anybody that would look like it cerebrally, yes, look at that pain you're leaving behind. It's a permanent solution for a temporary problem is what it is. Maybe where his mind was from all those hit, and again we don't know that he didn't think clearly. But he certainly left a heck of a void.

CAVANAUGH: Just yesterday, 100 former NFL players joined this lawsuit against the league over conclusions. What is it that these guys are claiming?

PARIS: That's be real here. Football players, it's a contact sport, and they sign up for it, and they know the ramifications. I think what they're saying is yes, we do, but let's have the medical staff on hand that maybe is objective and not tied to the club to tell you to get on back in there, kid! You're all right! Let's have some problems in place to maybe combat this or just reinforce what could be on down the line. I see all the old Chargers all the time, and yes, they walk with a limp, yes, a couple fingers are messed up, yes, the shoulder is sore. But some of those guys, the conversations aren't what you remember when they were younger. And you'll bring stuff up, and they give you that kind of far away look, and it leaves you with a bad feeling to know that these guys are really sacrifices their thinking ability later on in life to enjoy the glory right now.

CAVANAUGH: John from south park. Hi, John.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi there. I have a quick question regarding head injuries in rugby. Are we seeing the same type of situations pop up in rugby than we are in NFL? Where there are multiple concussions and possible -- at least reported allegations of brain trauma like we are in the NFL? I'm sorry, go ahead.

CAVANAUGH: I was just going to get a response to that.

PARIS: Yes, and soccer too with the headers. The key is, rugby players do not wear helmets in. The National Football League, your head is a weapon. And you launch your head into that opposing player. And some of the old guys said put them back in leather helmets and see how many concussions you have. Your brain, your most important asset, with that helmet, and you use that to bring down the other guy, and you feel that invulnerability.

CAVANAUGH: 1†man selling the NFL, the coaches were telling players all the time, lead with your lead, lead with your head. Is it any wonder that some guys come away from the sport with brain injuries?

PARIS: Right, and you hear the complaints from some of the old-time fans, well, they're not hitting like they used to.

CAVANAUGH: Then again, lots of people say the game of football now is more violent than it was in the '70s and '80s.

PARIS: Right, and that goes back to the helmet and the equipment, and the size, strength, and speed of these guys.

CAVANAUGH: So how is the NFL reacting to all this? Is there official reaction to the death of Seau?

PARIS: They gave the official statement, and the condolences. But the reaction, I think you can see it every year with the new rules put in place to protect these players. You can't pit a defensive player, you're not supposed to hit anyone above the heads. The fans love the hitting, they love that thirst for violence. It's a $9†billion industry. So they're trying, and I think some of that is to help the players, and some of that, they're going to present it in court and say, look, we did what we could. So they're kind of setting it up for down the road, I think.

CAVANAUGH: What about the idea of limiting the number of years that a player can play?

PARIS: That's interesting. That's interesting. But again, no one's forced to play. You know?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PARIS: And they sign up full well, and a lot of these guy, to tell you the truth, if they say I'm going to die at 43, but get 20 years like Junior Seau, and get the fame he did, sign me up.

CAVANAUGH: Suicide leaves a lot of pain. As we heard, we had a caller talking about this among survivors. And Junior Seau was a man that we know really cared about people. It's really odd that a man who cared so much about the community would end his life this way.

PARIS: And I think it might go back to the state of mind he was in. But we just did a big 20 year anniversary of his foundation recently, two months ago. And about -- this guy is so giving. And his whole shtick was don't give up, never give up. And then when it came to him, he wasn't able to do just that.

CAVANAUGH: I want to sneak in another call. Patrick from salana beach.

NEW SPEAKER: My question is about prevalence of pain killer addiction in the NFL and how a lot of these veterans are coming out, you know, after their careers and struggling with addiction and all the time on their hands, that can lead to a pretty serious bad spiral and potentially lead to depression, erratic behavior, and all that stuff. I don't know if junior had a problem with addiction. But I think that could be a contributing factor to these lives that are all messed up.

CAVANAUGH: Well, a lot of questions remain to be answered.

PARIS: He's right. I don't know if luck is the right word, but I've been lucky enough to go into a lot of NFL locker room, you walk in there after a game, it's like you walked into a car crash. There's IVs hooked up, guys going up for X-rays, it's a brutal, brutal game. And they try to mask that pain through being macho or leaning on drugs. And it's certainly a cause for concern later on.

CAVANAUGH: How do you think Junior Seau is going to be remembered, Jay?

PARIS: As a hometown hero, you know, and I don't like to use the word hero in athletics, but who gave almost as much off the field as he did on, and on the field he was a hall of famer.

CAVANAUGH: All right, we have to move on to our next topic. Thank you very much.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS midday edition. Joining me today at the Roundtable are my guests, jay Paris, Jeff McDonald, and Morgan Lee. A story that is almost the definition of Kafkaesque, being detained by authorities and apparently forgotten about for days with no food or water. Jeff, this story, I believe, started out when UC San Diego senior, Daniel Chong, went to a party two weeks ago. What happened at that party?

MCDONALD: Well, by his own admission, he was there to smoke pot and have a party with his friends, not unlike many college kids in the country. He spent the night. Unbeknownst to him, are the DA has been surveilling the house for some time, received a warrant to search the home, and executed that warrant on Saturday morning, April†21st.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know how the DA got wind of what was going on at this party?

MCDONALD: No, the search warrant is sealed for reasons that are not clear. I just checkod that again today. They apparently had some evidence of drug activity and sales underway, at the residence. They searched the home on Saturday and took nine people away, including Mr. Chong.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know what kind of substances the DA says it found at this residence?

MCDONALD: Yes, a lot of ecstasy, 18,000 or so pills. Some marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms, a Russian rifle, a couple of handguns, and a lot of bullets.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, so Daniel Chong was among the nine people that the DA took into custody; is that right?

MCDONALD: That was on Saturday, April†21st. They all spent some hours at the Kearny Mesa office of the drug enforcement administration. The way it was described to us was they were rotating between holding cells and interview rooms while they interviewed the suspects independent of one another and that's how they lost track of Mr. Chong.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So they were interviewing them and rotating them into interrogation rooms and holding cells. So what happened to the other eight people?

MCDONALD: The DA has told us very limited information. But they are on the record as stating that seven of the nine were sent to county custody. One was released and one was accidentally left in a holding cell for an unspecified period of time. We were able to nail down more than a week ago that San Diego fire rescue sent paramedics to the DA offices on Wednesday afternoon at about 4:45, which is quite a few days later than the search warrant execution, and they transported a man to a nearby hospital for having ingested a white powdery substance. We held off on reporting that for some days while we got more answers from the DA. And on Monday, they issued us a statement which raised a lot of new questions, but we were able to nail down the basic fact business and get those online.

CAVANAUGH: I read in your article that Daniel Chong says he was interviewed while he was at this station by an agent who basically kind of told him he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, right?

MCDONALD: That's exactly what Mr. Chong represents. He says he spent about four hours in a holding cell before his initial interview, that lasted an hour or two hours and he was basically told you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, we're going to let you go, sit tight. And they led him back to a holding cell. One of the holding cells, one of numerous holding cells. Some are equipped with toilets and others are not. He was in one of the temporary -- the short term holding cells with no toilet or sink. And expecting to go home any time. And he says he was handcuffed the whole time.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow. I didn't know that part. So the door somehow closed, and he found himself in this cell. Describe the cell to us. It has no bathroom, but how big is it?

MCDONALD: According to Mr. Chong -- we haven't -- we've asked the DA for a number of questions, and they haven't said. I've not seen the facility myself. He describes it as 5-foot by 10-foot with 10-foot ceilings, completely sparse, absent a stain little steal bench built into the wall.

CAVANAUGH: And no security camera. Were the lights on?

MCDONALD: Yes, are the lights were on initially. They were on for a lot of the time. But they suddenly went out, I think on the second day of his stay. So he was in darkness for probably the weekend because he was there over from a Saturday to a Wednesday. The very curious thing is that he says he heard agents talking outside, he kicked, he screamed, he clawed at the floor. He lost his sensibilities, not surprising. And no one came to his aid.

CAVANAUGH: So he heard people talking outside of this door that was closed, and he was banging on it and screaming. Is this a big facility? I mean, are is there a lot of commotion going on, and nobody took notice? Could it be something like that?

MCDONALD: I don't know about commotion. It's a big office. There are 300 people that work in the DA's San Diego field office, including some 270 sworn officers. . So it's a big, large facility. I don't know. You would think that if he was able to hear agents, maybe they could have heard him. It's not clear. I understand the DA's reluctance to release more information because clearly it sent it to court. I think everybody is glad that it wasn't as bad as it was. It wasn't more serious and he didn't die. According to him, he was hours away from death. Ten or 20 hours more -- he had been five days without food or water.

PARIS: How did they finally find this poor guy?

MCDONALD: Again, it's not clear. Apparently, it was accidental, and according to the paramedic call, which landed at 4:40 in the afternoon on Wednesday. You think they would have called the paramedic right away. How they found him, I don't know. His description is that the door suddenly opened for no reason, and an agent he remembers saying here's the water you've been asking that. Which is curious because that obviously complies that they knew he was there.

CAVANAUGH: Or that somebody heard him say something.

MCDONALD: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: One of the headlines was that Daniel Chong had to drink his own urine. I think that was in the headline of every story I saw about this. What does he say about that?

MCDONALD: He said he did what he had to do to survive which is unfortunate. He clearly was hallucinating. At one point, he broke his eyeglasses with his teeth, and used the shards to scrawl a message to his mother. He didn't think he was going to survive. He attempted suicide. So it's just a terrible situation. And frankly, it's a 1-sided conversation because the DA is in the unfortunate position of having to not only respond to what happened but protect itself from litigation that's surely coming.

CAVANAUGH: Jay?

PARIS: I'm curious, there was no family or support group, it seems odd that someone could go missing that long without somebody raising a red flag.

MCDONALD: Apparently his roommate did, but not until he was out of the DA custody and in a hospital. We're told -- we learned that his roommate filed a missing persons report with the UCSD police on Friday, April†28th, that agency investigated, they were able to locate Mr. Chong, contacted him on at the present. And on Saturday, he assured the police he was okay, and there was nothing to proceed with as far as a missing persons case. So that went away. He was released from the hospital the next day on Sunday. And by this time, so many reporters were sniffing around, we published our story on Monday, mid-afternoon, on Tuesday he retained a lawyer and held a press conference.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, what does the DA, what do they admit to, if anything? Do they admit that, indeed, Mr. Chong was in their custody for this period of time and they forgot about him?

MCDONALD: Yes, they don't identify Mr. Chong by name. They never have. They refer to him as the individual. They did concede that he was accidentally left in a holding cell, and they told us that in a statement they released on early Monday afternoon. That statement curiously did not address the timeframe. And so we went ahead and reported what we knew, which was that they grabbed him up among nine people on April†21st and on program 25th, the paramedics from the City of San Diego were called to the facility to rescue a person who had become ill after ingesting a white powdery substance.

CAVANAUGH: Apparently there was also some methamphetamine left in this cell with Daniel. Is that -- at least that's what Mr. Chong says; is that correct?

MCDONALD: Yes, and the DA concedes that as well.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

MCDONALD: They speculate that it was left by another detainee inside the cell. Mr. Chong says he has nothing to do with the ecstasy or the drugs that were found at the residence where he went to celebrate with his friends. He concedes to smoking pot. It was April 20th. A big celebration day in the pot smoking community. He says he found the methamphetamine in the cell, and in his state, deprived of food and water, he ingested it because he was hungry.

CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we're inviting their participation. Give us a call, and tell us what you think of this really, really disturbing story. When agents finally found Daniel Chong and they opened up the cell, what -- and according to Mr. Chong, somebody said here's the water that you wanted. What kind of condition was he in?

MCDONALD: Well, they haven't said. So we have one side of the conversation in Mr. Chong's statements at the press conference on Tuesday. He says he was in terrible condition. I don't think anybody would debate that seriously. He had been without food and water. That much is clear. He said he suffered a perforated lung from ingesting the glass. He was seriously dehydrated, malnourished because of a lack of food, and that's not even regarding his mental state which can deteriorate from isolation, and many days of no sustenance.

CAVANAUGH: And he ate the glass from his eyeglasses?

MCDONALD: At some point, he ingested the glass as a suicide attempt.

CAVANAUGH: And that perforated his lung?

MCDONALD: Yes, according to him. Now, we don't have access to the medical records or anything.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right

MCDONALD: That surely will come out in any litigation. But yeah, he was in bad shape. It's a terrible thing that happened. And just a remarkable situation for him, and for the DA, which is a highly regarded organization that is supposed to save lives and protect American citizens

CAVANAUGH: No, Daniel Chong says that he went through some hallucinations while he was -- I read in your story, Jeff, he apparently kept saying on a number of occasions you just can't understand what kind of hallucinations this could be while he was describing the ordeal of hearing people outside of his cell, and everything. So what could this have been? Just due to lack of food and water or does the white powdery substance have something to do with it?

MCDONALD: I would expect it to be part of all of the above. It's the lack of food and water probably was the most serious issue he was confronting. But I think the isolation, the nonsensical nature of what was happening to him, it's almost wonderlandesque. It's unthinkable. So we as journalists look at it and -- any human being would have sympathy for his plight.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah!

MCDONALD: And I don't fault the DA for not responding more thoroughly, although it's frustrating trying to be objective and figure out what happened when you only have one side of the conversation

CAVANAUGH: Do they say how they're going to be going about this investigation?

MCDONALD: They have not. But a little additional reporting, I know that other divisions of the Department of Justice will come in. I'm told they already have, and have launched this investigation. Clearly the special agent in charge will be asking some questions. I was told by one person close to the DA that probably whatever happens, that agent in charge will not be getting any pay rate increases for some time.

CAVANAUGH: One of the reasons we all know about this, and one of the reasons there was this big press conference is because now there's a lawsuit. And tell us about that.

MCDONALD: It's not quite a lawsuit yet. The law requires you to file a claim first.

CAVANAUGH: A claim.

MCDONALD: Yes, that's a document, basically a notice that you intend to sue the government at any level. This is typical, any time someone sues the government. You file the claim, they have to reject the claim, and once that's rejected, you go ahead and have cause to file a lawsuit. In the claim that was sent by mail, which is according to his attorney, the appropriate process to the general council in Washington, they want up to $20 million in damages. The attorney Mr. Chong retained said oftentimes you have to state the largest amount possible, because once you put a number on it, you can't go above that. So professionals in his position reach high, and then negotiate downward.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And I read that one of the claims is torture?

MCDONALD: Well, yes. Several people have remarked to me that we treat detainees from the war on terror better than Mr. Chong was treated. So it's understandable, if you're a lawyer representing Mr. Chong, you would adopt that point of view.

CAVANAUGH: What's been the political reaction to this story so far, Jeff?

MCDONALD: Interesting. We got a press release from Senator Barbara Boxer, I think Wednesday. And she was demanding answers to questions. We had approached Darryl Issa earlier that day with a response, and he had not yet gotten back to us, so we reported that. As soon as that went online, Mr. Issa's office contacted us and said they too would be asking questions. He's the chairman of the house oversight government reform committee so he has a lot of sway in matters like these.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know how Daniel Chong is doing now?

MCDONALD: I spoke to him on Tuesday. And he appears -- remarkably well. I don't want to say fine because he clearly has some physical issues and probably some mental issues to work through going forward. But he's a young kid, he's healthy, seemingly, apparently healthy. And I think he'll be fine. He was released from the hospital after five days.

CAVANAUGH: And Morgan?

LEE: Well, I was just wondering what would have happened if he hadn't come forward? It's got to be sort of an uncomfortable situation for him.

MCDONALD: I can't imagine. If he hadn't come forward, probably we would have found him by now. I had nailed down several others that he was with. I hadn't really secured any interviews. But even Mr. Iredale said at the press conference, part of the reason they brought Mr. Chong before the TV cameras and the newspapers is because more and more journalists were getting close to him, and they wanted to get the issue out there and move onto the next stage of the case, which of course is not in the legal arena.

CAVANAUGH: I'm glad to hear that he seems to be coming out all right by this. But wow! Thank you, everybody. We have to move onto the next topic.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]]

PARIS: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests at the Roundtable are jay Paris, with the North County Times, Jeff McDonald with UT San Diego, and Morgan Lee, with UT San Diego. It was a memorable day in San Diego, September 8th, 2011, when the electricity went out in the late afternoon. Now the results of a federal investigation have been released, showing that the power breakdown was a lot more complicated than early reports suggested. And I want to remind our listeners, we are inviting them to join this conversation. Morgan, can you start by reminding us what that outage was like for San Diegans?

LEE: Sure. This is an outage that started at 3:30 in the afternoon, approximately, amidst a heat wave in early September. And the whole event took about 11 minutes. So it really caught people by surprise. And we all lived through it, the lights weren't back on until roughly 12 hours later here. And this extended all the way over to Arizona, and down halfway into Baja California. It's probably the worst outage since 2003, and it's just as complex as that eastern outage that left 50 million people without power. This was about 2.7 million businesses and residences, and that translates to over seven million people who didn't have electricity.

CAVANAUGH: And I remember, you know, there were grocery store, everything closed down because everything -- nobody could buy anything, nobody could buy anything at gas stations.

LEE: You couldn't pump gas, yeah, it was paralyzing in a lot of ways. On the other hand, some people made the most of it and got to know their neighbors for a few hours.

CAVANAUGH: That's true as well!

LEE: But they missed an NFL game and a lot of other things.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and it was a scary event. And of course we had those sewage spills that were the result of that in San Diego County.

LEE: There were millions of gallons of sewage that went into the bay as a result of pumps being without electricity. Those sewage pumps, they had backup, but it was just to another substation in the same area. Of and so now they're going to be public investments to the tune of $12 million to make sure that doesn't happen again.

CAVANAUGH: The report this week was conducted by the federal agencies known as the FERC and NERC.

LEE: The federal energy regulatory commission, and the north American electric reliability corporation. A mouthful. But they're responsible for their liability of the bulk power grid across the country. So this was really an inquiry, a fact-finding mission. It wasn't laying the blame or going into fines or that kind of thing. What we got out of it is a really nuanced, detailed report into how this -- what started out as just one transmission line out in Arizona cascaded across Southern California, and into Mexico. And it's a jumping off point. It lays out the groundwork for a better understanding, and it's very timely. Even though it's eight months later, we're about to go into a summer without the largest power mant in the region, San Onofre, a 2-reactor nuclear power plant is down because it's been down since January. And it's unclear whether it'll be online by next month when it starts getting hot. People turn on the air conditioning, and the system starts to get strained. So this summer presents perhaps more challenges than last.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I was just going to say just so we get a feeling for where this report takes us, we were right, the early reports that it actually was started by a worker in Arizona disconnected some lines improperly, that was actually the start of it. But what we didn't hear about in the early reports was this story of the falling dominos, the major factors of this cascading power outage. What were some of those major factors?

LEE: Right, the point isn't what went on in that substation where a worker tripped off a big line by accident. It's about this is a system that's supposed to be able to keep going if a huge generator or a huge line goes out. So you have a network of utility companies and grid operator, and balancing authorities that keep this all running. And what the federal regulators found is that some of them were not preparing adequately the day before. They have to today-before modeling to understand which generators are offline, to understand how they're going to have enough supply for the demand that day, and these are really complex equations. Some of them did better jobs than others. And then there's also the issue of in real-time on that day right at 3:30 when power use is starting to peak, these different entities, they couldn't tell what was going on in each other's systems. And that just aggravated things as the dominos started to fall.

CAVANAUGH: Now, from what I understand is some of the operators did not know that a major power generation plant in Mexico was down for repairs. Of that's one of the factor, right?

LEE: Yeah, that's one of the factors. And this is -- this is something that they said was posted on a website. So it should have been readily available. If you look into the numbers here, there's still a mystery as to why there wasn't more generation online.

CAVANAUGH: Right. What it seems to suggest is that on this very hot September day, we were just a step away from a power outage even before that worker made the mistake in Arizona.

LEE: Yeah, the report also takes you out to that worker in Arizona and really it became sort of a running joke after the outage, there was a spoof twitter account, Yuma power guy, but the regulators went out there, and it turns out this was someone who had done this procedure several times, a dozen times, and he was going through a check list. And trying to work ahead, he was asking some people for help, he went back to the check list, and he skipped a few steps in the process. And that's how that all started.

CAVANAUGH: That must have been the under statement of all time. Tell us what the report says was the mistake made by Southern California Edison at San Onofre.

LEE: This is an automated system here, and it tripped off. It's set at a certain amperage. And as -- San Diego is in a cul-de-sac. So it gets energy, it relies on a lot of imports. And those come down from the north. Those rely on a lot -- on the southwest power link, it's called. So the east-west lines were falling. And it forced a lot of power to come down the coast, past San Onofre. And that tripped off this automated switch, in effect. So what that did is it quickly unbalanced the local system and within a fraction of a second, or so, we were without power.

CAVANAUGH: And what these federal regulators say is that there was no need for San Onofre to do that.

LEE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: That these lines could have basically absorbed a much bigger power surge than what was tripped by this. And so basically San Diego wouldn't necessarily have to have lost that power.

LEE: So yeah, so since September 8th, Southern California's Edison story, they're the ones who operate the reactor. They said this prevented this from propagating up the coast, and to the Los Angeles basin. The federal regulators, they constructed after a series of interviews and collecting a lot of split-second data from the system, they created a computer model and kept testing it and refining it, and they found that wasn't the case. And that's a huge departure from the narrative from utility companies, and the reliability authorities here.

CAVANAUGH: You had several people, you quoted at least one person in your article, Morgan, that took an overview of what this was telling us about this power grid system in this area. And I guess that you could conclude that all the various privately owned utility companies that were looked at by these federal regulators were more concerned about preserving their own equipment than in figuring out how to stop a cascading power outage. Would you think that was a fair assessment?

LEE: That's the gist of it. They're not all privately owned, there's a consumer owned utility in the im52errial valley. But talking with analysts about this too, this equation has grown more complex since deregulation about a decade ago. So now utilities don't own for the most part, the jeperation, the power plants. And they sarsaying that people people are doing a good job within their own territory, but they're not thinking of the big picture.

CAVANAUGH: And Jeff, that has got to shake us up, when you think about how complex our power grid is, and how that complexity is only increasing as our population increases, people add their own solar power back into the grid, this is becoming an incredibly complex situation with utility sources coming in from all sides. Nobody's keeping their eye on the big picture?

MCDONALD: Well, that's supposed to be the role of the federal regulatory commission, are and the coordinating council, the reliability corporation. I think what you have is divergent interests. And clearly one investor in a utility might be more interested in protecting their own infrastructure than dealing with another neighboring provider or operators' mistakes. I know that after the big 2003 outage in the east coast, which was eight times the size of this one, which was very bad, the worst in California, certainly, there was a national push to try and nationalize the grid. I think that never got off the ground because these utilities are incredibly powerful politically. And they make a lot of money for a lot of stock holders, and investors. So they don't want to risk that. Of I think this is a case where the federal government needs to step up and insure that the communication is better, and that they don't put their own interests ahead of the interests of the grid.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. If that comes out of this report, that would be quite interesting. Jay?

PARIS: I'm a little concerned that this was self-inflicted. I thought it was a guy knocking over his coffee on his keyboard. Where are the safeguards for terrorism? If somebody wanted to shut this system down, if it can be done so easily by a few missteps, I'm surprised there aren't more safeguards.

CAVANAUGH: Where is homeland security when you need them?
[ LAUGHTER ]
. Research SDG&E announced it won't pay about $7 million in blackout claims. Tell us about that.

LEE: Right, these are claims that companies said go ahead and file with us, and then they waited for this report to come out. So their interpretation is that the outage in their territory was the responsibility of other entities. Now that's up for debate. This wasn't a fault-finding study. And there are still other studies that are due to come out. The California public utilities commission, their consumer protection and safety division, is looking into this as well and should have their own results in another month or so.

CAVANAUGH: But SDG&E basically feels it's off the hook, that this report has gotten them off the hook?

LEE: Right. I asked them if they could go into a few more details about that, and they declined. So it's hard to follow exactly how they came to that conclusion.

CAVANAUGH: As you say, there are other investigations underway, but does this report actually suggest that the utilities make any changes?

LEE: There's a whole raft of things they want them to look at. Some of them are as simple as looking at at trip-off mechanisms for transformers and other things. There were no damages to equipments during this outage. So they're thinking maybe all those settings were too light. There's other things like their control rooms.

CAVANAUGH: And a whole host of other changes. But they're not required to?

LEE: That's yet to be seen.

CAVANAUGH: All right.


Forgot your password?