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Man hailed as hero after explosion at Southern California Oktoberfest

HUNTINGTON BEACH - Five people were hurt and revelers scrambled for safety when a series of explosions in an underground electrical vault sent flames shooting into the sky during an Oktoberfest celebration at a German-themed shopping and dining complex in Southern California, authorities said Sunday.

The first blast blew a vault door off its hinges and knocked several people to the ground after firefighters responded to reports of a possible electrical fire Saturday evening at Old World Village in Huntington Beach, witnesses and officials said.

Two firefighters and two restaurant employees were treated for minor injuries, according to Battalion Chief Jeff Lopez with the city's fire department. Bernie Bischoff, the owner of Old World restaurant, was seriously hurt, Oktoberfest spokesman Dan Escamilla said.

He was hospitalized in "rough shape," with second- and third-degree burns to 38% of his body, Escamilla told the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Bischoff had evacuated the dining area about 40 minutes before the blast, after noticing an odd smell from the area of the vaults, he said.

"He's a hero," Escamilla said, adding that more people could have been hurt if the dining area had been full.

The first explosion splattered heated mineral oil used to cool the transformers and possibly ignited subsequent blasts, authorities said at a press conference. The cause is under investigation.

Witnesses said they heard as many as three explosions coming from the annual celebration about 35 miles (62 kilometers) south of downtown Los Angeles.

Megan Houck, 26, said she saw flames come up from the floor near a patio area.

"It was just like one giant fireball that went up," she told the Press Telegram. "And then there was a second explosion maybe 10 or 20 seconds later."

Houck said the flames went well above the roof of the village, up to 40 feet (12 meters) in the air.

Revelers, some wearing traditional German costumes including lederhosen, ran from the scene as police evacuated the complex.

Southern California Edison crews worked through the night to replace three damaged transformers in the vault and restore power, spokesman Robert Villegas said. As many as 1,700 customers lost electricity, he said.

Pat Brassil, 27, said he was outside one of the Oktoberfest tents when he saw flames shoot out from another tent near the festival's entrance.

"It just lit up the sky," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Everyone was going pretty crazy and screaming."

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