Bad connection blamed for Statehouse explosion

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INDIANAPOLIS - Crews have determined a bad electrical connection caused an explosion at the Indiana Statehouse yesterday afternoon. But the blast continued a trend of explosions under downtown streets.

Emergency crews responded to the explosion shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday. No one was injured, but 15 staff members were evacuated from Governor Mitch Daniels' office, but the governor was not in the office at the time.

Smoke was seen coming from an underground electrical vault just after 5 p.m. Tuesday. An IPL spokeswoman said a high voltage connection failure sparked an explosion and fire.

"It shook the office, like a small earthquake might have," said Trevor Kight with the governor's office. "Those with windows near the explosion, you could feel the heat. So it seemed like something fairly significant."

The explosion was felt and heard by residents several blocks away.

"It sounded like thunder and all the lights flickered in the apartment," said Ali Yancey. "We thought it was a storm or something."

"I just heard the noise and saw the smoke and was rattled a little bit, but hopefully someone can figure out what it is and what's going on. It is nerve-wracking," said Kevin Martin, who owns a UPS Store near the statehouse.

Indianapolis has a vast network of underground utilities and at least three times in the past six months, there have been explosions in the downtown area in the underground vaults.

In April, a surveillance camera captured the moment of an explosion in an alley behind Monument Circle. Just minutes prior, a garbage truck was parked on top of the manhole. In January, several explosions along Massachusetts Avenue damaged the historic Athenaeum building.

"Ultimately, we want to limit the likelihood that these will occur," said Crystal Livers-Powers with IPL after a prior explosion.

So IPL is conducting underground checks every five years, making repairs to worn cables and adding new seals on manhole covers to keep out water. They are using a $20 million federal grant to help detect issues before they occur.

"The bigger [windows], the lower ones, they were completely shattered and there was just glass everywhere," said Kevin Martin, owner of a UPS Store near the statehouse. "They were blown out."

Martin was inside his store on Market Street when an explosion in January 2005 caused serious damage and injured three people. He's hopeful incidents like this can be avoided in the future, so no one is seriously hurt, or worse.

"Hopefully, it doesn't come to that. All of us were lucky and it seems like everybody's been lucky so far," said Martin.

IPL accelerating inspections

Indianapolis Power & Light released a statement Wednesday night, saying they are accelerating the inspections of underground systems:

Indianapolis Power & Light Company (IPL) is initiating an accelerated inspection plan of the underground network in the downtown mile square. "IPL's underground network is safe and reliable," said IPL President and CEO Ken Zagzebski. "But in light of the recent events we are taking this added action to ensure the continued safety of the public and our crews as well as the reliability of our service to downtown businesses."

IPL conducts scheduled inspections of its underground network to identify evidence of deterioration that could eventually lead to equipment failure. The accelerated inspection plan and any necessary remediation will assure that recent events are isolated incidents and minimize the risk of any reoccurrence.

In addition to continuing our current maintenance practices, IPL will immediately begin the inspections of key underground equipment, vaults and other infrastructure including primary and secondary cables. The inspections are expected to take about 45 days. Crews visually inspecting the vaults will also use infrared camera technology, which can detect "hot spots" where problems might occur.