Underground Explosion Blasts Indianapolis Manhole Covers Into Air

By JENI O'MALLEY | March 20, 2015

Underground explosions shot manhole covers into the air at a busy downtown Indianapolis intersection on Thursday, disrupting commuters, closing businesses and raising concerns about safety as the city prepares to host the Final Four next month.

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the blasts, though similar incidents in recent years have been blamed on equipment malfunctions and electrical short-circuits.

Firefighters and utility crews were on the scene and power was cut for several blocks as a series of blasts sent the metal covers, each weighing as much as 160 pounds, into the air. Several buildings were evacuated as a precaution.

No injuries were immediately reported, but fire officials said one person was rescued after being trapped in an elevator when power was cut.

An Indianapolis Power & Light spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. The utility tweeted that it could take several hours to restore power to the affected area once repairs are made.

Thursday’s incident follows a similar issue Monday night, when smoke and fire began spewing from a sidewalk grate along Massachusetts Avenue in the city’s downtown business district. IPL said the fire was ignited when equipment in an underground electrical vault malfunctioned.

More than a dozen similar incidents have occurred in Indianapolis over the last decade. In 2005, at least three blasts occurred in a nine-day period, including one near the Indiana Statehouse that injured three people, damaged a bookstore and forced authorities to evacuate dozens of residents. Those blasts were blamed on a series of short-circuits in underground utility lines caused by heavy rains and freezing and thawing.

In 2011, IPL blamed electrical shorts for a half-dozen explosions that damaged vehicles and raised concerns about the safety of those planning to attend the 2012 Super Bowl. Those blasts prompted state utility regulators to commission a study examining the cause of the blasts and the utility’s maintenance practices.

IPL that year installed about 100 new manhole covers near Lucas Oil Stadium that were designed to reduce damage from underground explosions and fires.

Indianapolis Department of Public Safety spokesman Al Larsen said Thursday that his agency would work with the utility to conduct safety inspections in key downtown areas once repairs are made from the latest incidents.

He acknowledged that the upcoming Final Four, scheduled for April 4 and April 6, creates a sense of urgency to ensure visitors’ safety.

“We know we obviously have a very big event coming up in less than three weeks where we’re going to have the world descending on Indianapolis,” he said. “We want to make sure we’ve got it all buttoned up.”

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