Blast from the past at Cal State San Marcos

CSUSM's Foundation Classroom Building, scene of the great July 2001 rock explosion/CSUSM

One eyewitness said the blast “looked like an asteroid attack out of Star Wars.”

The witness was referring to rocks from a regular quarry blast above Cal State San Marcos (CSUSM) raining down on campus about 3:15 p.m. Monday, July 30, 2001, damaging cars and buildings, but causing no injuries.

For Robert Stakes, who had just begun his tenure as dean of extended studies, the rocks from outer CSUSM space were a terrifying and unforeseen experience.

“I knew this job was going to be a challenge,” Stakes said, as he examined his Pontiac Grand Prix in the nearby parking lot, “but I didn’t know I would be ducking rocks the first two weeks I was here,”

Both dean and his car escaped damage.

Foundation Classroom Building at CSUSM with a rock strike circled in yellow/Waldo Nilo

Hansen Aggregates, a London-based international mining company, contracting with California Drilling and Blasting of South Pasadena, did the quarry work on a campus hillside.

Rock had been cleared by blasting on the university’s 304-acre hillside property since the late 1980s, when the land was being prepared for construction of the first building, Craven Hall. Blasting finished in December 2004.

Hansen and company had been blasting rock above the campus about twice a week in the arrangement with the university, but that explosive accident was the first time rocks ever hit the campus, said Jud Harvey, Hansen plant manager overseeing the project. As it turned out, after 1,200 separate blasts, it was the only time.

The company had been blasting since 1997 to clear some 16 acres south and southeast of the parking lots behind the campus’s landmark Dome. Some 2 million cubic yards of rock were removed from the 16-acre site alone.

Hansen and university officials surveyed the damage to cars in an upper-level, open air faculty-student parking area that contained about 200 vehicles. Officials from the company and university said Hansen would pay for all vehicle damages.

About one in 10 vehicles appeared to be hit and damaged. Rocks of all shapes and sizes ranging from small to boulder-sized littered the parking area. The Foundation Classroom Building also was damaged with one large hole visible and glass shattered in classrooms.

“I was standing at the Foundation Classroom Building by the doorway to watch what a guy said usually is a dust cloud when they blast in the hills,” Stakes continued. “Suddenly, a whole lot of large rocks came flying through the air moving at a great speed. I watched it until I realized I could be hit by one of those things and ran inside the building. I could hear them hitting the cars: boom, boom, boom.”

Stakes added: “The rocks coming over the hill looked like an asteroid attack out of Star Wars.”

Dora Knoblock, Cal State San Marcos parking services director, supervised staff members as they took notes on damaged vehicles and escorted vehicle owners to assess damage. She said the lot contained 370 cars when full. It appeared half-full.

Explosives Academy photo shows how it’s done/Explosives Academy

Rick Moore, Cal State San Marcos spokesman, said the rock blasting is done through an arrangement between the university and Hansen Aggregate whereby the company removed the rock to make way for more university buildings and the university received rocks for its new buildings, intended for up to 48 buildings.

“Everybody on campus hears the blast but this one did sound different,” Moore said. “The cars we can fix. Fortunately nobody was hurt.”

Falling rocks were visible even to passing motorists. Mel Craig, picking up a son nearby said “he was kind of scared” by the blast that sent a dust cloud a quarter-mile into the sky before the rocks plummeted to earth.

Standing between several rocks and her Volvo in the parking lot, Mayra Besosa, a Spanish lecturer said: “I was just lucky.” The only damage to her station wagon was a little dent on the roof.

Blasting resumed two month later, and took place only on Fridays. They typically featured 65 “production holes” that were placed at depths of 35 to 40 feet. Then, 200-pound explosives were placed in the holes. About 105 feet — 25,000 tons of material — were blasted off the face of the hillside in a session.

Hanson continued mining about 35 acres on the west side of Twin Oaks Valley Road, about a mile from the campus, under a permit that expired in 2008. The parcel yielded about a million tons of rock a year, said Ian Firth, the operations manager for Hanson in North County.

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