New Year’s Day Blast Startles Neighborhood

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 04, 2008

For Berkeley firefighters and police, 2008 started with a bang—an explosion that sent pieces of a stolen car flying more than 200 feet. 

Just what caused the blast remains the subject of an ongoing investigation, said Police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss and Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong. 

Fortunately, no one was hurt by the blast, which ripped the driver’s-side door off its hinges. 

The 911 call came at 9:05 p.m., reporting an explosion and a car fully engulfed in flames near the corner of Woolsey and Ellis streets. 

“We received a report of an explosion, and the car was fully involved” when firefighters arrived, Dong said. 

Kusmiss said that the car was rolling down the street when officers arrived, probably because the searing flames had burned out the emergency brake. 

The car had rolled 34 feet from the site of the explosion by the time firefighters were able to arrest its progress by throwing a chock beneath its wheels. 

Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames, which left the vehicle’s interior charred and melted beyond recognition, said the sergeant. 

What triggered the explosion is still the subject of an investigation, but Dong said pieces of the vehicle were blown as far as 300 feet. 

Whether or not an explosive was used remains an open question, “but you can get almost the same reaction from a can of gasoline if it’s sealed up” said the deputy chief. 

Kusmiss said that a chemical sniffer identified the presence of an accelerant, without pinning down the precise chemical. 

The car was a 1995 Pontiac TransAm, and when police officers at the scene ran its license number, they discovered it be-longed to a San Francisco woman who had reported it stolen from West Oakland 12 hours earlier.