by Elizabeth Darling
At 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, Gunn High School students were milling around center quad, chatting and signing yearbooks. The next minute, a whooshing, roaring sound followed by a cloud of smoke and darts of flame coming from a cement receptacle turned the tranquil scene into chaos. Burning embers from an exploded homemade bomb rained down on the students, setting clothing, backpacks, binders full of papers and yearbooks aflame. As the students ran away, their backs and legs were singed by falling embers. The campus was littered with singed papers. A bench still had open yearbooks and binders lying around, covered with a layer of soot and ash.
"It looked like a flare, but it was 15 feet long," said junior Josh Levin-Soler. "It was really scary. I saw people running away with their backs all flaming."
After student witnesses came forward, Palo Alto police arrested three seniors, who confessed to police. Those arrested were: David Chin, Robby Llewellyn Roberts, and Brendan Patrick Wheatley, all 18. All were booked into North County jail Wednesday on suspicion of conspiracy, possession of a destructive device and explosion causing injury.
If convicted on the last charge, the three could each face a mandatory prison sentence of at least five years. They were still in custody as of Thursday, in lieu of $10,000 bail. Roberts was being held in Palo Alto and the others in San Jose. All three were scheduled to be arraigned today at the North County Courthouse in Palo Alto.
Two were taken into custody at school, and the third turned himself in to the police department later that afternoon.
Gunn Principal Chris Rich vowed that the students would also receive disciplinary action from the school.
"I'm really angry," said Levin-Soler. "It's disappointing that people would find this funny."
Police and firefighters converged on the school shortly after the explosion and set up a triage first-aid station in the nurse's office. Eighteen students were injured, two seriously, and eight others were taken to Stanford Medical Center, where they were treated and released.
Rumors swirled throughout the campus about the incident. Just before the explosion, a group of students had pummeled the quad with eggs, sending students running. Some said they heard someone say to clear out of the quad area.
Seconds later, the concrete receptacle, which was a combination trash can and non-functioning water fountain, exploded. Normally, Rich said, there can be as many as 350 students in the quad area during brunch.
Palo Alto fire crews brought in a cement-cutting machine and cut a hole in the side of the receptacle, and then began hitting it with a mallet. Eventually, two members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department bomb unit moved in and began sifting through the rubble wearing protective green rubber gloves. Relaying their information to Palo Alto Police Officer Lori Kratzer, she said they believe that the device was homemade.
"It started out as a smoke bomb," she said. "It turned into a flamethrower."
"It appears that someone was trying to set up a smoke bomb in the old fountain," Kratzer said. They used a homemade powder, which, when ignited, caused a rapid chemical reaction within the enclosed cement container.
She said witnesses told police they saw someone come out of the bushes on the edge of the quad with something lit and put it into the old water fountain.
"We think it may have been a Coke can with fuse material (inside)," said Palo Alto Fire Marshal Phil Constantino. The bomb squad found remnants of a reported 65 pounds of chemicals, which had been placed in bags and packed down into the cement receptacle.
Those responsible, Constantino said, apparently packed the fountain the day before the explosion. The soda can, he said, was probably used as an igniter. The compression inside the container was so much that it blew the powder out both sides.
"It appears more planned than we thought," Kratzer said. "It doesn't sound quite like a prank."
Assistant Police Chief Lynne Johnson said the suspects put the chemicals, which are pretty "easy-to-get materials," some of which can be bought at grocery stores, into paper bags at a Los Altos park.
Senior Kristin Kleidon was standing on the edge of the center quad enjoying the school's "brunch" break when she saw the black and white cloud of smoke emerge from the cement receptacle nearby. The next thing she knew, her friend, who had been sitting on a bench signing yearbooks, fell to the ground.
"I saw my two friends running. I saw someone fall to the ground. It was Eleanor Lin. Immediately I had to help her. She had sparks on her clothing," Kleidon remembered. "There were all these tiny specks of white and gray like ash. I was extinguishing flames on Eleanor."
Lin and a friend sitting nearby, Catherine Meyer, were the most seriously injured. They were taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's burn unit in San Jose, treated for second- and third-degree burns and smoke inhalation. Both will continue treatment as outpatients.
Stanford Hospital refused to give the names of the eight students taken there, but a spokeswoman said all were in good condition. The Palo Alto school district also refused to identify them, citing student confidentiality.
Students at the scene identified one youth, junior Tony Graham, who was treated for smoke inhalation and taken to Stanford Hospital after he helped some other injured students. He was treated in the emergency room and released later Wednesday, a hospital spokeswoman said.
"There was a tremendous whoosh," said Rich, who was on the other side of a building from the explosion. Witnesses said 30-foot flames shot out of two six-inch holes in the bottom of the receptacle, scattering students in all directions. One student who was wearing three layers of clothes had two of them burned through.
Senior Onn Brandman was standing 12 feet away from the trash container and smelled smoke and saw flames. At the same time he heard "a really loud hissing." He began to run away, and got "burning black stuff" all over his legs. The receptacle was "shooting black stuff" all over the area, he said.
Brandman was taken to Stanford Medical Center and treated. He said it hasn't put a damper on his graduation festivities, but he said, "I hope the people are identified and punished."
Senior Mark Tompkins was sitting on the same cement bench as Lin and ran as soon as he saw the explosion. "Everyone started running," he said. "Embers started landing. People sitting down got burned. The flames hit some people. They were everywhere." His brother Matt was nearby. "I heard a hissing and rumbling," said Matt. "It sounded like an airplane taking off."
"It sounded like a roar," said student Torkwase Mshuja. "I was shaking." She was standing by a tree, and a friend next to her had some flaming embers land on her.
Superintendent Jim Brown, who happened to be on campus to help in a math class, ran to the quad to assist. "Our first concern is always for the safety of children and caring for the injured," he said. Counselors from throughout the district, as well as top district administrators and two school board members, flooded to campus to assist. A list of injured students was compiled and parents were notified. A staff alert and a fax to each school in the district were also issued.
Back up to the Table of Contents Page