The Eternal Heritage Museum accident, where a large concrete dome collapsed and crashed through three floors to kill US devotees below occurred three days before we left.  Two friends of ours (Michael Oliver and Bonnie) died. The third death was another Californian from the Santa Cruz area, an artist Jean, whose 12-ft. mosaic monolith/stupa the three were working on erecting in the centre of the museum. The museum is a large and costly, wasteful building showcasing world religions and promoting Sathya Sai Baba as the God Incarnate and as the Deity of all religions.

I saw Michael (who I first met on a previous visit) on and off from Sept. until the eve of his death. We had discussions together with V.K. Narasimhan, the editor of Sai Baba's monthly journal. We had several long and intense conversations and exchanged many life experiences. He was the son of a single mother who was an alcoholic and he had been looking after her more or less as long as he could remember. While on his way back to the US, he had nearly died in Mumbai from a serious illness contracted at Puttaparthi after his first visit there. We had a couple of long evenings together at the room my wife and I were living in in one of the Round houses. The last visit took place some days before the fatal accident.

On the 26'th of October, at about 2.15 in the afternoon local time, my wife and I heard what sounded like a building falling in. Not until about 5.30 p.m., however, did I hear from residents that there had been an accident and many victims were supposedly in the rubble. There were actually only 3 casualties in all - two Americans women, Mrs. John Brown Hebel (45) and Mrs. Air Bonnie Lynni Mainaric (43), of San Francisco were killed outright, crushed by the falling masonry of the dome and the floors above them. Michael Oliver of Santa Cruz, California, survived for many hours after being dragged from the debris.

Knowing that Michael had been working long hours for weeks in the affected building a U.S. friend (Robert Bruce) and I went to the Prasanthi Hospital to find out first-hand etc. There were guards stopping anyone from going near the hospital, but we were able to obtain entrance after a lot of haggling and explaining. The guards were doubtless put there in an attempt to stop the news of the fatal accidents leaking out, for this is the policy of secrecy and cover-up of all untoward incidents which could affect the blind faith that devotees have in Sathya Sai Baba's guarantees to protect all his devotees etc. 

On arrival we spoke to an elderly Indian doctor (who Robert Bruce knew - a man in his 60's perhaps, but whose name I forget). He said that Michael had been X-rayed and there were several fractures (9 was the number later given and included spine and skull) as well as internal hemorrhages. He claimed that Michael had not complained of pain, even when they had moved him about for the X-ray machine, despite the fact that he had only been given a minimum dose of morphine. Why he received only a minimum dose is a question for which that doctor should have been held responsible, for Michael was constantly in extreme pain, according to a friend who accompanied him in the taxi to Bangalore.  I went into the X-ray room to see Michael, meanwhile the doctor - according to Bruce - said that Michael had to be sent to Bangalore because only there were there facilities to give any chance of saving his life. He nevertheless doubted whether Michael would survive the journey due to his internal bleeding.

When I saw him, Michael was fully conscious and was talking to a friend - Carol from the Santa Cruz Sai Baba group - who was massaging his foot (the only uninjured limb).  She was telling him he must be taken to Bangalore and that she was going to go with him (which she also did). It was clear from the way he said 'Bangalore?' that he would rather have stayed at Prasanthi Nilayam. I only spoke to him briefly to see if he wanted me to accompany him to Bangalore in the vehicle that was serving as a makeshift ambulance. Michael said 'no'. Frankly, having never seen any casualty before, I was rather shaken up by it and would not have been much use on the journey due to my back and neck. Being moved in his condition did cause him terrible pain and strain, according to Andrew, an American I met who agreed to accompany him in the same vehicle. Andrew later told me that Michael pulled off the bandage around his head after hours of agonising travel due to long delays at roadblocks, shortly after which he lost consciousness for the last time.

My wife and I were booked to leave Bangalore by air on 31-10-1990. We took a taxi from Puttaparthi to Bangalore, and happened to arrive at the midway Chickaballapur hotel/cafe stop at the same time as a taxi bringing Andrew Rymer, Carol and Emily to Puttaparthi was present. They told us in detail of Michael Oliver’s terrible ordeal, during the journey. They had attended his funeral in Bangalore.

The entire ‘Spiritual Museum’ building construction was contracted by a major Indian firm that has no other connections with the ashram. The structure is a copy of the Somnath temple at Puri, one of the major Hindu temples in India. The central dome-like structure at the top of the central 'spire' lacked, according to one of Sai Baba's own engineers, the necessary reinforcements and it apparently contained too great a mass of concrete for safety. It is said that Sathya Sai Baba himself had very recently warned that it was overweight and would have to be reconstructed, but I do not know to whom (if anyone) he actually said this. Most likely a typical rumour put about by officials to support devotees’ belief that Sai Baba knows everything, and to avert criticism in the interest of damage limitation – seeing that the facts had already leaked out despite their efforts.

I heard from several people that, at around 12 noon (26/10), a rumble was heard from the dome and workers directly discovered a crack in it. The engineer was informed and he withdrew the workforce directly; that was at around 12.30. The group working on Joan's monolith/mosaic (Michael, Bonnie and a Mexican lady Rosemary who was uninjured), who had been very keen and had most willingly worked 9 or 10 hours a day for weeks on the exhibit, They had ignored the warning as they thought they had only about half-an-hour's work more to complete the entire task (which had taken weeks). Their work was at - or very close to - the centre of the main building.

A Jewish lady, Parvathi, who was permanently resident at the Puttaparthi ashram (whose hand had been amputated), had herself been working on the exhibit about Christianity in the Museum building. She claimed that, for several minutes around 1.p.m., she had discussed the matter with those later killed and she had advised them strongly not to reenter the building, not least because Sai Baba reportedly had sent word that all work should be suspended immediately.  She argued the case with them for about 15 minutes, suggested they take a break, at least, have some food etc. , but they had locked the door so as to remain undisturbed by people trying to get them to come out.  She said that they had even joked about it and decided to conclude their work 'come what may', directly underneath the damaged dome. They even locked the door to that part of the building from inside so as not to be disturbed further. It certainly seems from their actions that they all shared in the decision. The one who knew the facts best was one of their group who survived the collapse nearby, a Mexican lady called Rosemary who was a recent addition to the group. We were unable to get the facts from her as she was not to be found. Why she did not speak out and let the facts be known one can only surmise.

The afternoon (25'th) before the accident I met Michael in the ashram and he told me that, earlier that day, Sai Baba had come into the Museum and had stood just inches away from him for about five whole minutes, but without speaking to him. Michael said he had felt more and more uplifted as the minutes passed – a normal reaction among devotees who seldom get so close to their supposed God Incarnate.  However, as soon as Sai Baba moved away, Michael said he had some powerful depressed feelings, which lasted for hours. He asked me what I thought was the reason… whether it was some kind of cleansing of old feelings (his life with an alcoholic single mother had been extremely difficult for him, he had tried to help her since boyhood). It now seems like some sort of premonition of his coming death.

On the evening of 20'th Oct., Michael brought Bonnie to visit my wife and I in the room we had and we talked for perhaps 2 hours, mostly about spiritual questions and one of the main subjects was about what Baba really means by 'liberation' (Moksha) - but, not surprisingly, no final conclusions were reached!

I heard about the withdrawal of the entire Museum work force from the building (by the chief engineer over 1 hour prior to the 'disaster') after rumours had circulated that the engineer had been warned in vain by the Indian workers in the building.  Had he not acted it would, according to V.K. Narasimhan, have amounted to legal liability for criminal neglect. The full facts about this matter were impossible to ascertain, not least due to the usual cloak of secrecy all Sai officials draw over such matters, and the red herrings and rumours that always abound at Prashanthi Nilayam ashram. Dr. Jack Hawley, a 'true believer' in Sathya Sai Baba was involved in the cover-up of the true facts, for he told me himself how he had done work for Swami in clearing up the matter with the US Embassy, but that the matter was not to be spoken about. This I knew from what V.K. Narasimhan had told me earlier.

Narasimhan, who showed extreme caution in saying things that he knew or assumed might displease Sathya Sai Baba (at least in public!). The days after the accident, he had invited me to talk about Michael Oliver after he had been holding forth about death and loss. I realised people were confused as to what he was talking about, his having never mentioned the accident. I naturally asked if they knew that the accident had occurred the day before. Many people said "No, no." So I explained the matter. After this in private, VKN said "Well, I suppose it didn't matter that you told them, but Swami does not like anything of that sort to be talked about". At the same time, he would speak freely to me in private of what he was unable to publish.

Michael Oliver had two articles published in Sanathana Sarathi in Nov. 1988 entitled 'Playing Your Role' and in Dec. 1989 entitled 'Listening to the Inner Voice'.

(by Robert Priddy)

See report on the accident in ‘The Hindu’
See also report on the Eternal Spiritual Heritage Museum building

See also scan of my recorded notes made at the time

Another report on the Museum accident from Eileen Weed (known as 'Divya') has emerged on-line in 2012. Here is a scan of the relevant excerpt:-

Museum accident as rported by Divya - death of three devotees
Click on image above to go to the source page

Museum accident Prashanthi Nilayam 1990 - death of Michael Oliver plus

See also the source from Divya at

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