Failed transformer sparks fire, prompts evacuations

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Indianapolis - Over 1,000 people were evacuated from buildings in downtown Indianapolis after a blown transformer started a fire.

Crews worked late into Wednesday night to make sure downtown buildings had power after the mid-afternoon explosion and fire in an underground power transformer.

It happened under Ohio Street near Delaware Street at about 2:15 pm. One of three privately owned underground electrical transformers caught fire.

Flames rose from a sidewalk grate in the entryway to Charlie and Barney's restaurant, sending workers and diners into the street and sparking evacuation of more than a thousand people from the Gold Building next door.

Firefighters had to rescue seven people in the Gold Building who couldn't exit via the stairs due to health conditions. The elevators were not functioning at the time of the evacuation.

The remaining workers in the Gold Building relayed their locations to people on the street via cell phones. They were located on floors 12 and 20. None were treated for any injuries.

Workers in the Gold Building were worried that the fire might spread to a nearby garage, where they parked their cars. No cars had any fire damage.

"I was on the street when it went off. At first it was just a small amount of white smoke. It took quite a while for it to become black smoke and really it was well into 15 minutes and the fire trucks were just arriving when it became black smoke and flames," a witness said, adding that it sounded like a muffled explosion underground.

"It was a huge explosion . It felt like something hit the building or fell on top of the building," said Tanysha Lipman. "I heard a big boom."

Firefighters with the Indianapolis Fire Department hosed dow the side of the Gold Building to keep its glass skin from shattering.

In all, over 1,000 people were affected, according to the Indianapolis Fire Department. It took firefighters over an hour to get the fire under control.

Eventually workers in the Gold Building were allowed back inside to collect their belongings, but they had to walk up the stairs since the elevators were still out of order.

No one was hurt.

The buildings affected by the incident are all owned by Hertz Investments. They are the Gold Building, located at 151 N Delaware, the parking garage located next door, the Charlie and Barney's Restaurant and the Securatex Inc., both located underneath the parking garage. Additionally they own the 251 E Ohio Building, next to the parking garage.

A handful of people were evacuated from both the restaurant and the Securatex office.

Hertz Investments owns three underground transformers in the area. Five years ago one of the transformers caught fire and was replaced. The other transformer was completely rebuilt. The transformer that caught fire Wednesday has not had a complete overhaul but was serviced and passed inspection in November 2009.

The transformers, which are about 6 feet by 6 feet and 5 feet tall, are fed by an IPL power line.

Damage

Barney's restaurant suffered the most damage, most of it exterior.

According to Battalion Chief Dennis Musgrave, total damage is estimated at $75,000. ($50,000 for the damage to the restaurant and $25,000 for the transformer and equipment.)

An investigation is underway to determine why the transformer failed.

Five years ago, IFD says there was a similar transformer fire and explosion in downtown Indianapolis.