In tangled traffic, a moot commute

Thousands of downtown workers lose day at offices lacking electricity

Sub-street fire near City Hall disrupts service

Underground Fire In City

September 21, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The electrical fire yesterday beneath two busy downtown streets left Scott Franklin stuck in traffic, starting to accept that he wouldn't actually arrive at the airport before his flight departed.

"It's real bad," he said, as he sat about 11 a.m. near the base of the Jones Falls Expressway - in the same predicament as thousands of gridlocked Baltimore commuters. "I can't move. I need to be there."

It turned Elaine Emerick's 30-minute drive from Hunt Valley to downtown into an hourlong stress session.

It left Jacqueline Dezes to design floral arrangements by candlelight.

And it forced drivers to learn the proper procedure for navigating intersections with darkened traffic lights. Many didn't know to stop and yield to the car on the right.

So it went yesterday, around a 25-square block swath of downtown that was largely without electricity. The evening rush hour flowed somewhat better than the morning, partly because thousands of downtown employees never made it to work.

State office buildings were scheduled to reopen today, as were most businesses.

"For morning rush hour, certainly avoid the area in the immediate vicinity of City Hall," Mayor Martin O'Malley said.

The early morning electrical fire caused severe damage to an area below the intersection of Guilford Avenue and Fayette Street. Above the pavement, the troubles and frustration spread much farther.

Traffic lights failed at 33 intersections, O'Malley said. Twelve buildings lost power, according to Baltimore Gas and Electric; 117 businesses closed, said a business advocacy group. There were also small interruptions of telephone and Internet service. And the system that synchronizes the traffic lights at dozens of other intersections was rendered useless.

Commuters coming into Baltimore from the north were slowed by the congestion on the JFX. The traffic lights at the foot of the highway were among those affected. Commuters from the south crawled past an unrelated wreck on northbound Interstate 95 in Howard County.

That was if they had work at all.

About 1,000 city employees were given the day off. So were 1,400 employees at six state office buildings. Scores of businesses locked their doors. Three courthouses closed.

By 7 p.m., city and utility officials said, power had been restored to the Munsey building, a 147-unit apartment complex in the first block of N. Calvert St. where water flow depends on an electric pump.

City Hall was expected to reopen today, but officials urged employees to check early morning television and radio reports for updates.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," O'Malley said.

The trouble started in the middle of the night. A resident in an apartment at 7 N. Calvert St. called 911 about 1 a.m. to report flames shooting from the street at Guilford and Fayette. BGE officials said yesterday that they weren't sure what caused the fire. This much was certain: Wires exploded, igniting the inferno.

The underground pressure blew off at least two 3-foot-diameter manhole covers, tossing them so high into the air that one chipped when it hit the ground, fire officials said. They might have been launched 50 feet up, one estimated.

Clarence Bishop, the mayor's chief of staff, arrived at the scene about 2:30 a.m. and said it looked as if someone had ignited a roman candle, a firework that spouts colored balls of flame: "Fire was spewing out of the manhole."

The fire knocked out power to most buildings within a block radius, including City Hall. To quell it, BGE cut power to the other lines running beneath the intersection. That shut off electricity to many buildings between Monument Street on the north, Baltimore Street on the south, Fallsway on the east and Charles Street on the west.

Firefighters suffocated the fire by spraying in carbon dioxide. It appeared to be out when workers began ventilating the manholes around rush hour yesterday morning. That re-ignited a small fire. At 11:31 a.m., the city Fire Department officially deemed the blaze under control - more than 10 hours after it was reported.

It started, BGE officials said, in a room the size of a large bathroom, its floor about 15 feet below the road surface. Inside that vault, wires that supply power to the area cross wires that feed specific buildings.

Also below the ground are phone lines, cable television lines, communication lines that link city buildings, and the fiber-optic lines that power and synchronize the city's traffic lights.

Before power was restored, the city hooked up most of the affected traffic lights to generators. That made them operable, but not timed for efficient traffic flow, O'Malley said. When power returned at midafternoon, synchronization didn't immediately follow.

The outage did not affect the city's emergency response system, the mayor said, but it interrupted 311 service for nearly a half-hour. The 311 line is used to report such complaints as potholes and graffiti.

Nearly 45 percent of downtown business closed, according to the Downtown Partnership.

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