UPDATE: Underground explosions downtown caused by transformer malfunction

Photo courtesy IFD
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Updated: .

A series of underground transformer explosions Wednesday afternoon forced several downtown buildings to evacuate.

Heavy brown smoke pushed out from an underground grate around 1:30 p.m. near the Oceanaire restaurant at 30 S. Meridian Street after the string of small explosions, according to IFD Battalion Chief Alvia Smith.

Lunchtime pedestrian traffic had filled the area of Meridian Street between Washington and Maryland at the time. Foot traffic and area buildings were evacuated and traffic was shut down for two hours as a precaution. The sound of the explosions filled the area and shook windows, but authorities later confirmed no damage was done to the structures and no injuries were reported.

"Just lots of smoke and lots of noise. I think it just scared everyone that was in the area. No injuries, though," said IFD Capt. Rita Burris.

Update from Indianapolis Power & Light:

"IPL crews are in the process of investigating a failed underground network protector incident that occurred at approximately 1:30 p.m. this afternoon in a vault located at 26 S. Meridian Street. Four transformers are located inside the vault and feed into the south side of Circle Centre Mall. In order to isolate this incident, a partial outage will occur this afternoon on the south side of Circle Centre Mall. IPL is working with mall officials and regrets any inconvenience. There were no reports of injuries or damage as a result of this incident."

IPL crews were still on the scene as of 5:00 pm.

Nearby office workers recounted a frightening scene.

"We were having a meeting in my office when we heard this strange noise. It sounded like a hissing noise," said Kevin O'Keefe. "And then like a small explosion. The smoke came up immediately, right to the window level. As soon as we saw and heard that, we started to vacate our office immediately."

The building at 30 S. Meridian houses Oceanaire and Napolese restaurants, as well as several offices. Workers were startled by a series of explosions.

"You just didn't know what it was," said Christy Vavra. "You could tell it wasn't a plane crash. It wasn't a car. It wasn't anything like that. But I mean, honestly it sounded like a bomb underneath the building."

In all, 11 IFD units responded, along with EMS, IMPD, IPL and Citizen's Gas. IPL crews evaluated the transformer malfunction and immediately worked to stop any potential further explosions while Citizens Gas crews evaluated their utilities, as is standard procedure.

This isn't the first time IPL has had trouble with its underground infrastructure. In 2011, IPL announced it was spending millions of dollars to install new equipment to detect problems earlier. That occurred after incidents with manhole covers shooting several feet into the air after underground explosions. The problems continued into 2012 and prompted an investigation by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.