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The fire down below
Why have there been two manhole fires in five months downtown?
A worker on the scene

IT WAS a quiet morning, with residents hurrying to work and tourists poking around.

But the peace and quiet was shattered with a boom as a manhole cover was blown high into the air. Fire roared out of the manhole, and soon, more covers were blown out into the street.

No, this particular incident didn’t happen in Savannah. It took place in Washington, D.C. in 2001, and it was followed by several others. By the time the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 wiped the story off front pages, Washington had seen as many as 50 manholes blowing their lids.

It’s a fact that old cities often have aging electrical systems and at times, power lines can go up in flames. Savannah’s Dec. 29 explosion was preceded by another explosion on Aug. 14 that blew three manhole covers on Bull Street, between Bay and Bryan streets. Both resulted in traffic problems, evacuations and business closures.

The Savannah Fire Department responded to the call on Bay Street at Drayton Street at 8:39 a.m., says Capt. Kevin Tomko. “Unfortunately, we had the same experience only four months ago in a similar situation,” he says. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Here we go again.’”

While department felt confident about handling the fire, it did pose particular challenges. “The complications were due to it being in a confined space,” Tomko says. “It was one of those deals where you have to fight the fire from the outside in. We had to go slow. Fortunately, there was no one down there to rescue or save.”

But the situation could have been dangerous, to passersby as well as firefighters. “The initial explosion could have been dangerous if there had been anybody in the immediate vicinity,” Tomko says. “The fire itself could have been dangerous, but most people saw the fire coming out of the manholes and moved away.”

The first two manholes blew at once, and the the third blew later. “The area between the manholes was engulfed in fire the whole time,” Tomko says. “It was an electrical fire and had to do with the components of the electrical system.”

Tomko hopes a similar fire doesn’t happen in the future, but knows it could. “According to Georgia Power, they’ve done everything they can to try to prevent these types of things from happening,” he says. “But this being such an old city, they can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again.”

In all, 15 emergency units and 55 personnel responded to the initial blast. Once the situation became more in control, some returned to their stations to cover the rest of the city. Some were on-site for hours on end.

Savannah-Chatham Metro Police also responded to the blast, immediately setting up a critical incident center.

Officers began directing traffic and helping people leave the affected areas. “At first, we weren’t sure what was going on, so we started doing an emergency evacuation,” says department spokesman Gene Harley. “We continued to keep River Street closed afterwards because it had no power.”

The timing of the fire meant most businesses hadn’t opened yet, so few visitors were downtown. There were no forced evacuations at hotels, although some guests chose to leave because the power was out, Harley says.

“When we evacuated, we allowed the business owners or employees to stay with their stores,” Harley says.

No reports of loitering or looting were received, and the timing of the blast meant fewer people were in the area. “It was a Monday morning instead of a weekend,” Harley says.

“While it’s unfortunate any time it happens, with every critical incident, we try to learn and adapt,” he says. “We look at what we did the last time and add improvements.”

August’s critical incident was excellent preparation. “We ultimately had a much quicker response this time,” Harley says, “We were quicker to deploy, and there was a better working relationship between all parties involved. The sheriff’s department sent deputies out to help with traffic and we got everything resolved.”

If a similar incident occurs in the future, Harley hopes the public is more mindful. “People were standing in the street, trying to see what had happened only two to three blocks away,” he says.

Some were standing near manholes. “If you’re talking about manholes being blown off, the biggest thing we’re trying to stress to people is to be mindful where you’re standing,” Harley says. “If there’s a manhole cover, you don’t want to be standing next to it.”

Georgia Power spokeswoman Swann Seiler says the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined. “We know it has to do with the underground network system,” she says. “Just as we have overhead lines, there is an underground system.”

In that underground system, there are cables that are connected to vaults, which have circuitry. The lines extend to a substation.

“It’s like a network system of cables underground,” Seiler says. “It’s at all different depths. Some may be 10 to 15 feet down.”

The fire Dec. 29 was in a vault located at the corner of Abercorn and Bay. The manholes were blowing off a block away because of the pressure from the smoke.

The city’s electrical system is being completely updated in a $50 million project. But it’s going to take time to complete the work, and Seiler says another fire could occur in the meantime.

“Two years ago, right after the merger where Savannah Electric became Georgia Power, Georgia Power assessed the entire distribution system of the Savannah area,” Seiler says. “That means transmission and distribution, overhead and underground — all lines.

“They determined there needed to be some major upgrades. Georgia Power committed to a 10-year project. Part of that overall project is a 5-year project for the downtown area specifically. We’re in the second year,” she says.

“When I say ‘upgrade,’ I mean we’re replacing cables, changing out vaults and upgrading the voltage,” Seiler says. “It takes a long time to do that. We can’t just shut down Bay Street to run one long line of cable. We have to do it in spots where we are moving from square to square or street to street.”

Seiler says it’s time-consuming, but worth it for the future. “We are a very old city, and some of those lines are 80 years old,” Seiler says. “They’ve served us very well. If you take a look at the growth the city has had in the last 5-10 years alone, there are new buildings, new hotels, and the technology has changed.”

Although there are no guarantees it won’t happen again in the future, the upgrades should eventually take care of the problems. There is no way to tell if the incidents are related, Seiler says, even if they are in close proximity. It does emphasize the need to do the upgrades, she says.

Seiler heard the first manhole cover blow, and was on the scene when the third one went. When the power went out, it became obvious what was going on.

“The police did an outstanding job, as did the fire department,” Seiler says. “They are a tremendous support to us. We were taking our direction from them, as well.” cs