City, utilities dig to find what touched off blast Drivers urged to plan for 2-week closing of the intersection

November 10, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials are summoning outside engineers to determine just what went wrong within the maze of destroyed water, sewer, electric, steam, telephone and cable pipes and conduits that ignited Saturday below a busy downtown intersection.

The gaping, muddy crater at Park Avenue and Franklin Street grew in girth and depth yesterday as a 50-ton crane extracted a junkyard of urban infrastructure hardware.

Officials said the cross streets will be closed for the next two weeks.

"I think people should plan their routes and leave a little earlier," said George G. Balog, city public works director. He spoke from a mobile office set up near the intersection where bright orange flames burned for nearly five hours Saturday after the street bed collapsed and a gas main exploded.

On a normal weekday morning, Franklin Street is a speedway through the midsection of downtown Baltimore. Today it remains closed to traffic from Cathedral to Howard streets.

Work crews installed orange detour signs advising motorists to take Cathedral-Liberty streets south, then turn west on Fayette Street and return to Franklin via Paca Street. Drivers on Park Avenue should turn west on Saratoga Street, and then take Paca to Franklin.

The residential community affected by Saturday's explosion -- the southern part of the Mount Vernon neighborhood -- got back on its feet yesterday as the senior citizenresidents of Basilica Place returned to their apartments after a hasty evacuation on a damp Saturday morning.

"There is no place like home," receptionist Lillian Gooden said as she welcomed fellow tenants back.

Attendance at Mass was "down slightly" yesterday at the Basilica of the Assumption, said its sacristan, Robert Ganzermiller. The church had no water service.

Volunteers at Our Daily Bread fed the downtown homeless with bag lunches for the second day in a row. Officials at the Enoch Pratt Free Library are planning to reopen its central library today. Trigen Energy workers set up a portable steam furnace on Park Avenue to get heat to its commercial customers.

As workers patched together electrical circuits and installed temporary waterlines, city and other utility officials studied what touched off the sequence of events that erupted with a thunderlike bang Saturday morning after a driving rain Friday.

"We've got a lot of scenarios -- people are telling a lot of stories," Balog said.

As the city's 50-ton crane extracted shattered utility pipes and long-buried streetcar rail from the street bed, Balog said, "I'm having professional engineers come in and look at everything. We need to find out what happened. There are a lot of stories."

While the corner of Park and Franklin appears to be a typical city intersection, the asphalt masks an underground substructure of utilities.

Just below the macadam are two sets of steel streetcar rails. Beneath these tracks are layers of submerged water, gas and steam pipes, as well as separate conduits for 13,000-volt electric cables, and numerous telephone and cable television wires.

Buried deepest -- some 30 feet down -- is a large sanitary sewer pipe. City public works officials said this lowest pipe must be examined closely because it might shed light on what happened.

Fred H. McCathorine, a vice president of Trigen Energy, the firm that operates downtown steam lines, offered this sequence of events:

An operator at Trigen's steam-monitoring headquarters in the Spring Gardens section of South Baltimore noticed an increase in steam pressure near the intersection that eventually collapsed and called McCathorine about 3: 45 a.m.

By 5 a.m., McCathorine had driven to Park and Franklin, where police had already closed the street and utility workers were examining a sunken portion of roadway -- a water-filled sinkhole.

"The hole was full of water, but all of a sudden -- zoom -- the water drained away, like water being released rapidly from a bathtub," McCathorine said.

"When the water left, we could see a deep hole, with broken water, steam and gas pipes exposed about 6 feet from the surface. There is a sanitary sewer line down at about 30 feet and my guess is that it sucked the water and the clay out of the hole."

Later in the morning -- sometime after 7 o'clock -- McCathorine said the street's depression enlarged and he then detected the scent of escaping gas.

"At this point, the only thing holding the street up was the old streetcar rail. Another section gave in and when the asphalt fell, it took wires with it. Then the loud explosion came," he said.

Airborne chunks of asphalt hit his coat and hard hat. The shattered gas line burst into a hot orange flame that burned until 1: 05 p.m. Saturday when BGE workers using inflatable plugs capped the line in two places.

The timing of the break -- Saturday morning, when electrical usage is low -- proved to be a blessing.

"If this would have happened during the week, there would have been a major downtown power outage," said BGE supervisor Ken Gasior.

City workers picked through the wreckage yesterday afternoon and salvaged the charred street sign "Park Ave." Wrapped in a plastic bag, it was placed in safekeeping so it could be installed in the Public Works Museum at the Inner Harbor.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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