Ball of fire erupts from D.C. sidewalk manhole at I and 18th streets NW

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

With a crash and roar, a ball of fire erupted from a sidewalk a few blocks from the White House on Tuesday evening, a startling event that left people in downtown Washington clearly interested but relatively unruffled.

A fire in an electrical manhole at 18th and I streets NW generated a stream of black smoke about 5:45 p.m. amid numerous office buildings and across from a busy Metro stop. No injuries were reported.

The fire apparently involved a transformer on a feeder line, and D.C. fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said oil used to help dissipate heat from the device generated the smoke that rose from the opened doors of an underground vault for about two hours after the explosion.

"It sounded like thunder," according to a man who said he was in an office building in the 1700 block of I Street when he heard the blast.

"It sounded like a car crash," said Linda Berman, a psychologist who was seeing a client in another nearby building when the explosion occurred.

By her account, her client was unshaken.

"He just went on with his story," Berman said.

A man standing outside a parking garage across I Street from the scene of the blast said he saw "a fireball." It was "two stories" high, said Sewasew Ayele, gesturing at the office building at the southeast corner of the intersection, about 10 or 15 feet from the electrical vault. Other witnesses also described a fireball rising from the brick sidewalk.

As smoke continued to stream from the vault, passersby headed along 18th Street toward the Metro, some cocking puzzled glances at the smoke, the yellow tape closing I Street, the waiting fire equipment and the patrolling police officers.

After Pepco employees arrived, firefighters streamed milk-white foam into the vault to quell any remaining flames.

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