HHS Building Evacuated After Minor Explosion

By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 2009; 11:34 AM

A "small explosion" shook the Department of Health and Human Services building Thursday morning after a transformer malfunction, and authorities evacuated the building as a precaution.

D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Pete Piringer said the transformer exploded at about 9:45 a.m. in what he described as the building's penthouse electrical room. There was no smoke or fire, Piringer said, but the equipment was tied to the building's air-conditioning system, and fire officials recommended emptying the building.

"As a precaution, we have cleared the building of about 300 occupants, and right now we continue to evaluate the building's electrical system," Piringer said. Representatives from the General Services Administration and Pepco are also at the scene, Piringer said.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jenny Backus said the agency was cooperating with the safety orders from D.C. fire officials.

The explosion apparently was felt in some points of the building, on the 200 block of Independence Ave SW. Ned Holland, assistant secretary for administration and management, sought to reassure employees, sending out a mass e-mail that read:

"You may have felt the building shake in the last few minutes. We had a failure of a piece of electrical equipment on the 8th floor which resulted in a small explosion. No one was hurt and there was no fire. We still are trying to assess the impact on the building systems, but there is no need to evacuate. Appropriate people from the General Services Administration (our landlord) are on their way to assess the damage to the equipment. When we have more information, we will be back in touch with everyone in the building."

A short time later, employees received instructions to leave the building.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was out of town Thursday.

Employees returned to the building after about 40 minutes, and the electricity is working, officials said.

Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Dan Zak contributed to this report.

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