Underground blaze scalds life overhead

A stubborn fire in aged conduits below Charles St. cuts off electricity and shuts down businesses

July 16, 2008|By Doug Donovan and Jessica Anderson | Doug Donovan and Jessica Anderson,Sun reporters

The underground electrical fire that blasted a North Charles Street manhole cover skyward Monday continued to hobble downtown traffic and commerce yesterday - a frustrating reminder of how the aging, unseen matrix of wires and pipes beneath Baltimore can spur sudden chaos above ground.

City firefighters struggled for nearly 10 hours into yesterday morning to control the subterranean blaze that sent flames 14 feet into the air. It was extinguished only after the Baltimore County Fire Department arrived with a carbon dioxide-spewing device that smothered the flames about 3:30 a.m., a fire official said.

Most of the 30 residential and commercial buildings that lost power near the fire at Charles Street, between Saratoga and Mulberry streets, had electricity restored yesterday. BGE reported that 10 customers were still in the dark at 4 p.m.

The disruption forced restaurants to throw out spoiled eggs and meat, bartenders to go home without tips and some residents to spend the night in hotels.

"This is certainly an aging infrastructure," said David Brown, a spokesman for the city Department of Transportation, which manages the utility lines that run through the city's vast network of conduits. "We're doing our best to upgrade it and to change a lot of the infrastructure into fiber optics."

The cost to upgrade the system entirely would be astronomical. The city spends millions of dollars a year patching and updating the utility conduits, but complying with a federal order to completely overhaul the city's sewerage system, which is housed in another set of underground pipes, is expected to cost nearly $1 billion.

Age or accident can damage water mains or conduits, resulting in sinkholes, flooded streets or fire. When such incidents occur downtown, boosters have chalked it up to the hazards of residing or working in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

"The infrastructure is the oldest in the historic downtown area," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, a group that promotes the area. "It's extremely challenging to identify all of the wiring under our streets."

Strung beneath the streets of Baltimore are 10 million linear feet of utility lines carrying electricity, cable, telephone, street light and fiber-optic service, city officials said.

A single malfunction can silence large swaths of the city. No humming refrigerators, no ringing telephones, no blaring televisions.

A failure could also blind police from watching street activity through a network of surveillance cameras, many of which are plugged into conduits.

A police spokesman said yesterday that no cameras went black because of the Charles Street fire.

The lines are threaded through 3.7 million feet of conduits and accessible by 14,000 manholes, Brown said.

The department's conduit division manages the critical system with a $7.5 million budget, including about $3 million for improvements, $2.5 million for construction and maintenance and $475,000 for inspection and testing, budget documents show.

Many private contractors, utility operations and telecommunication companies lease space in the conduit system from the city. The biggest tenants include BGE, Verizon and Comcast. Their lines are typically encased in cables that are strung through concrete holes that open into 6-by-12-foot access areas beneath manhole covers.

"It's an integral part of the city's infrastructure," Brown said.

A network of 16,000 other manholes leads down to another underground system essential to city life: water and sewer pipes. Every winter, when pipes freeze and burst, city residents are provided yet another reminder of the fragility of the aging systems that deliver clean water and carry off waste.

City crews maintain 3,400 miles of water mains in Baltimore City and County. They also manage 3,100 miles of sanitary mains in the city. The sewer system, more than a century old in places, is under a $900 million federally mandated upgrade order.

On the streets throughout downtown yesterday, commuters and business owners suffered the above-ground effects of the latest below-ground malfunction.

The loss of power meant throwing out eggs and other perishable ingredients at Charm City Cupcakes.

"The good news for us is Tuesday is not like the end of the week," said Sandra Long, who owns the store in the 300 block of N. Charles St.

Long was also forced to leave her apartment, which is across the street from her business. She spent the night in a hotel.

Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub was still dark during lunch yesterday as owner David Niehenke cleaned the establishment, which had been closed since 9 p.m. Monday. Niehenke said the loss of his happy hour and burger night cost the business nearly $2,000 in sales.

"We've had construction [and] water turned off, but nothing this bad," Niehenke said.

Officials are investigating the cause of the fire, but a BGE spokeswoman said "secondary low-voltage cables," generating less than 600 volts, were involved in the blaze and were being removed.

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