Sinkhole sparks gas explosion 265 people evacuated, intersection collapses, services interrupted

3 are slightly injured

City traffic, utilities likely to be disrupted for days or weeks

November 09, 1997|By Jacques Kelly and Marcia Myers | Jacques Kelly and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A ruptured gas line exploded in downtown Baltimore yesterday morning, producing a spectacular 40-foot column of flame that burned for more than five hours, forcing the evacuation of about 265 residents from nearby buildings and promising to inconvenience downtown residents and commuters for several days.

The explosion at Park Avenue and Franklin Street caused only minor injuries to three people.

But it left buildings including the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Catholic Charities soup kitchen Our Daily Bread and the Mount Vernon Hotel without electricity, gas, water, phone or cable service.

"It's incredible to see flames shooting 30, 40, 50 feet in the air, but at no time was it anything that wasn't controlled," said Baltimore Fire Battalion Chief Hector Torres.

"Even though it continued for five or six hours, we really felt we had the situation under control the entire time."

By late yesterday, officials at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. had reconnected nearly all the electrical service and about 100 of the 250 customers who lost natural gas service.

Meanwhile, temporary housing was provided at St. Ann's Day Care Center in southwest Baltimore for about 40 residents of the Basilica Place senior citizen high-rise who were unable to find other shelter.

Many had only enough time yesterday morning to grab a jacket or bathrobe to throw over their night clothes before leaving the building in the 100 block of W. Franklin St.

Public works officials said it would be at least two weeks before the intersection is repaired.

"The length of disruption at this point is still undetermined, but clearly traffic will have to be rerouted," said city police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr.

Officials closed the following streets: Park Avenue between Mulberry and Centre streets; Franklin Street between Charles and Howard; Cathedral Street between Centre and Mulberry. Cathedral will be reopened before the rush hour tomorrow morning, according to public works officials.

They advised motorists to avoid using westbound Orleans Street and the Franklin Street corridor.

"Motorists are going to have to be patient and realize that they'll need to take a little bit of extra time if traveling that part of the city," said Weinhold.

It was unclear when the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library would reopen. The library will remain closed today, and no decision has been made about whether it will be open tomorrow, said library spokeswoman Averil Kadis.

The explosion also severed cable service in the 21201 and 21202 zip codes, which the city's cable provider, TCI, said might take as long as three days to repair.

Although a precise cause had not been determined last night, officials said the problem apparently began with a leak in either a steam or water pipe.

Erosion from the rushing water created a sinkhole and undermined a manhole vault containing underground electrical equipment, which collapsed onto the gas line, rupturing it.

"It was sort of a domino effect -- it just came crashing on down," said Kathleen Nolan, a spokeswoman for BGE.

Officials from Trigen-Baltimore Energy Corp., which provides commercial steam for downtown, could not be reached for comment.

Police received the first report of problems at about 2 a.m. Saturday, when a depression was reported at the Park and Franklin intersection.

Two officers closed off the area and stayed to control traffic, police said.

BGE and firefighters said they were called about 6 a.m. when nearby residents began reporting low water pressure.

Vivian Ford, a resident at the adjacent YWCA of Greater Baltimore, said she looked out onto the street after hearing a loud noise and feeling a vibration like an earthquake about 4 a.m.

Three hours later, just before the explosion, she was standing on the street getting a better look at the intersection.

"I saw a big hole in the ground, and I could smell gas," she said.

The intersection erupted in flames minutes later. "There was just a big whoosh," she said.

One police officer suffered minor burns to his face and neck, and another received a scalp cut from flying debris. Both were treated at Mercy Hospital and released.

A public works employee suffered a minor cut that did not require hospital care.

The explosion disrupted utilities along the Franklin Street corridor from Howard Street to Charles, and from Mulberry to Centre streets.

Buildings including the City Detention Center and the School for the Arts on Cathedral Street were without electricity Saturday morning.

dTC Managers at the YWCA and the Basilica Place senior citizen high-rise, both in the 100 block of W. Franklin St., said they were not certain when the buildings would be ready for residents to move back in.

Firefighters arriving at the scene feared that the fire might reach two adjacent buildings, including the YWCA, and turned hoses on the buildings to wet them down.

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