- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

An underground electrical-cable fire blew off a manhole cover in Georgetown early yesterday morning, the fourth such incident to occur in the District of Columbia in less than five months.

Yesterday's fire, which began about 7 a.m., prompted Potomac Electric Power Co. crews to cut electricity to hundreds of residents and about two dozen businesses, which had no choice but to close up shop for most of the day. Pepco officials said they had to turn off electricity to repair the cables that were damaged in the blaze.

No one was injured in the fire. But the blaze caused extensive damage to the cables that provide electricity to the Georgetown neighborhood, said Robert Grantley, vice president of Pepco.

Pepco officials said they did not know what started the fire that blew off the 80-pound iron manhole cover at M and Thomas Jefferson streets. They also said yesterday's fire was not related to a series of underground explosions that blew off three manhole covers in February in the same section of town.

"This one is completely unrelated," Mr. Grantley said. "This was a cable fire."

Officials also blamed an underground fire for blowing off a manhole cover at Second and K streets NE on March 2. At the same time, another cover popped off on 29th Avenue in Prince George's County, Md., near the District line. No one was injured in those cases.

Most of the stores, restaurants and hotels affected by yesterday's power outage were along the 29th and 30th blocks of M Street, between 28th Street and Wisconsin Avenue. They are the same businesses that were forced to close their doors to customers during the Feb. 18 explosions when authorities shut down the strip for hours.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Laura McDougall, general manager at the Pottery Barn, whose crew of nine employees spent most of yesterday cleaning up the store. "We're forced to lose money during what is our highest-customer-volume day of the week. There's a lot of frustrated workers and customers out there."

By 7:30 last night, Pepco had restored electricity to all but 34 customers but officials called on all customers in the area to conserve electricity to prevent more outages.

Pepco spokesman David Morehead said the utility was especially asking customers between 24th and 31st streets and between O and K streets to cut back on electricity through tonight.

The normal six feeders in the area were down to three, Mr. Morehead said.

Pepco blamed the February explosions on Washington Gas workers, saying they nicked a power cable. But Washington Gas denied that and said tests showed the cable could not have been penetrated.

Since then, Pepco officials said they have been conducting regular inspections but found only "minor problems."

"We have problems with our system from time to time, but nothing out of the ordinary," Mr. Grantley said.

But the business owners and managers agreed yesterday they are getting tired of having to turn away customers, especially during one of their busiest days of the week. Many of them said they had hoped Pepco would be able to prevent any more of these underground cable fires from recurring.

"It's kind of scary because we have manholes right in front of our store, and we don't know if they'll come off one day," Ms. McDougall said.

Tom Hughes, manager at the Haagen-Dazs ice cream store, said his store lost about $8,000 in profit and melted ice cream last February as a result of keeping his business closed for one day. Since then, he said his store purchased a generator to provide some power to the freezers to keep the ice cream from melting.

"If we close later this afternoon and remained closed for another 24 hours, it's going to kill us," he said, as he stood in the darkened storefront yesterday afternoon.

Richard O'Keefe, who manages Mr. Smith's restaurant, sent his Sunday crew home at 12:30 p.m. on what would have been a busy brunch and lunch hour because he didn't know whether power to his restaurant would be restored any time soon.

"People have been fortunate that no one has been hurt in any of these incidents but it's a little unfortunate for us who lose customers and money," Mr. O'Keefe said.

Hotels, which are almost always booked heavily around this time of year, also had to make the best of the daylong black out. The Four Seasons Hotel, whose 259 rooms were booked over the weekend, had to rely on its competitors to help them serve their guests.

Officials with the Four Seasons had to ship coffee from several other hotels to serve guests during the day and wash thousands of pounds of sheets and towels at the Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner, Va., to get ready for about 100 new guests who were scheduled to check in last night.

"We're being creative as best we can," said Trisha Messerschmitt, a hotel spokeswoman. "We're doing what would normally be unthinkable. We're pulling together to help one another until the power is back on. But everybody is upbeat. The guests know that we're doing the best we can and that it's pretty much out of our control."

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