- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

A burned-out electrical cable yesterday morning sparked an underground fire that forced the evacuation of several buildings in Northwest and left about 180 utility customers without electricity for about five hours.
Flames shot up through a manhole in the 1100 block of 17th Street NW about 7:30 a.m., and smoke poured out of three others nearby about four blocks north of the White House.
No one was injured in the manhole blast, but several nearby buildings were evacuated because of thick smoke drifting into their basements, including the United Mining Association at 1130 17th St. NW, said D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter.
"Everyone was evacuated for about two hours, and power was shut down until 1:05 p.m. while the fire department and Pepco investigated the faulty cable," Mr. Etter said.
"Workers in the building began noticing smoke coming from the manholes early on, but it wasn't until the fire alarm went off that anyone saw fire coming from the manhole in front of the building," he said.
Officials with the Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) said they are investigating what caused the electrical-feed cable to burn out. The utility company, which is replacing old cables and electrical gear under Georgetown, has been plagued by manhole explosions and underground fires for several months.
Utility workers cut power to the network grid that provides electricity to the mining association, which deprived about 180 customers in Dupont Circle of electricity, Pepco officials said. The area along Connecticut Avenue NW from Rhode Island Avenue to DeSales Street and 17th Street NW from P to L streets was affected.
Usually when a feed cable malfunctions, others in the area will pick up the load. But the utility company feared other cables would be damaged by overload if they were forced to produce the excess power, which is what happened, said Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin.
"After we restored power to the network, a cable on N and 18th street overloaded and burned out, causing problems for about 18 more customers," Mr. Dobkin said yesterday. "We will have power restored to customers on that grid by tonight."
Six cables feed power to the network in that area. Though an investigation is under way into what caused the manhole fire, he said the fire burned most of the evidence.
"Whenever we investigate a cable burning out, it is sometimes impossible to determine the cause if there has been a fire," Mr. Dobkin said.
Officials indicated there are many possible reasons for the cable to malfunction, from an insulation problem to rats chewing on the lines. Crews were working on the cable last night.
Pepco, along with Verizon, Washington Gas, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the D.C. Division of Transportation, recently began a three-year, $30 million upgrade of the aging underground electrical system in Georgetown, about three miles west of yesterday's incident.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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