- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

One manhole blew its top and two others belched smoke yesterday afternoon in Georgetown, blocking M Street NW during the evening rush.
Rescue squads detected a low-to-moderate presence of natural gas, and four nearby businesses were evacuated, said Allan Etter, a D.C. fire department spokesman. The explosions occurred about 4:40 p.m.
"We don't know the cause, but there's a witch's brew of things going into the system," said David Morehead, a Potomac Electric Power Co. spokesman, referring to the salt and other treatments for snow-covered roads that could have seeped underground. "We're unsure if that's the cause, but it has been a factor in the past."
No one was reported injured at the 3200 block of M Street NW, which was closed to traffic.
The explosions did not cause any power outages or loss of gas service, officials said.
"We do know there was an underground ignition," Mr. Etter said. "What we don't know is why this happened."
He said investigators were trying to determine the source of the gas leak.
Witnesses said smoke was pouring out of the manholes for a short while. Early on, officials smelled gas, but the odor dissipated as the evening went on.
Meghan Clemente, 24, manages the Uno's Pizzeria across the street. She said she was unaware of any gas leak until emergency crews arrived.
"We didn't know about it until we saw the firefighters come in," she said.
She said the firefighters and gas crews checked the restaurant quickly, then focused their attention across M Street, near the Georgetown Park shopping mall, where several stores were evacuated and yellow tape was wrapped to keep cars and pedestrians away.
Miss Clemente said she decided to close the restaurant at about 7:15 p.m.
"No one can get to us," she said. "We had no one in here."
A block up the street, at Georgetown Tobacco, assistant manager Allen Haddox said M Street traffic was being diverted at Wisconsin Avenue, causing massive delays for motorists trying to get to the Key Bridge.
Georgetown is in the midst of a major project to upgrade all the underground utilities, and Mr. Etter said officials were unsure if last night's ignition was related.


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