Blast blows cover off downtown manhole


INDIANAPOLIS - An underground explosion rocked downtown Indianapolis Wednesday morning.

The blast was sparked by an apparent electrical fire in a utility manhole near Meridian and Washington Streets.

IPL crews were still making repairs 12 hours after the explosion happened. Meridian was closed from Monument Circle to Washington Wednesday night but is expected to be open by Thursday morning. This is now at least the sixth time in as many years something has exploded under downtown streets.

Surveillance video shows the moment of the explosion at 5:30 Wednesday morning. A fire flashes, and then the manhole cover flies several feet in the air. Chopper 13 captured the fire flaring up and continuing underground for several minutes. Firefighters cordoned off the area and called in Indianapolis Power and Light.

"On our end we secured the area. We double-checked the residences in the area along Washington Street. They were secure. We did not evacuate anyone and there were no injuries," said Capt. Rita Burris, Indianapolis Fire Department.

But for those who live and work downtown, the explosion rattled nerves.

"It's always something you think about driving and walking, especially with a city like this that values everything being so close. It's always a safety concern, definitely," said one downtown worker.

"I hadn't thought about it much before all of this today but I'll keep it in mind here on out," said another woman.

One secondary cable was charred by the fire. IPL officials are still uncertain exactly where the fire started but they know that it spread several blocks.

"The system is designed so that those manholes will lift off of their bases if the pressure requires it to do so and so that's what happened this morning," said Crystal Livers-Powers, IPL.

It's happened before. In January, a similar electrical problem blew three manhole lids on Massachusetts Avenue, causing damage to the Athenaeum.

In 2005 there were three separate explosions in just over a week. Three people were injured and extensive damage was caused to several businesses along Market Street.

On Wednesday several people were very lucky. In the alley just before the explosion, a garbage truck was parked above the manhole momentarily and drove away just five minutes before the explosion happened.

According to IPL, there are more than 1,000 utility manholes in downtown Indianapolis. Crews inspect 200 of those each year. They say they just don't have the manpower to inspect more.

One merchant said he hopes enough is being done before someone gets seriously hurt or even killed.

Later Wednesday, IPL released the following statement:

"IPL has determined that a cable problem on customer-owned equipment led to the downtown manhole fire and cable fault early this morning. Much like overhead power lines, these underground power systems are - in some circumstances - impacted by the elements, animals and other sources of interruption which can cause cable faults.

As IPL installs the new cable at this location, we are taking additional measures to install protective equipment to isolate future customer incidents at this location from impacting the IPL system. This protective equipment performs like fuses in a house that trip to isolate problems."