Life for scores of residents and businesses surrounding the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore was expected to return to normal early today after a fire in the basement of a tavern apparently spread to underground electrical conduit systems, forcing evacuations and cutting off power to about 300 customers, authorities said.
At least two square blocks were without electrical power for several hours, authorities said.
Yellow police tape surrounding the scene remained while repairs were made.
Rob Gould, a spokesman for BGE, said the outages were apparently not caused by the failure of any of the company's equipment and that the incident remains under investigation.
By 7 p.m., power had been restored to customers in the 1000 block of Light St, said Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.
Power to the remaining customers was expected to be restored early today, Gould said.
About 4 p.m., a fire was reported in the basement of The Stalking Horse tavern in the first block of E. Cross St., bringing firefighters from several stations, Cartwright said.
He said firefighters brought the basement fire under control in less than an hour but that flames and heat apparently spread to underground power systems.
A second alarm was ordered by commanders at the scene, bringing additional firefighters and equipment. A command post was set up at Light and Cross streets.
William Baukhages, 65, an architect for Arris Design Studio, located on the second and third floors above The Stalking Horse, said he knew something was wrong when the screens of his computers began to flicker.
"Then the power completely shut down, and I left the building with the rest of the 17 employees," he said. "Some of us went out the front door and others out the rear."
Baukhages said he could feel heat on his feet and saw smoke coming up from the basement fire as he left the building.
He said the fire, the smoke and water probably damaged electrical panels in the basement and that the company would be closed for a few days. "Luckily, no one was injured," he said.
At least four manhole covers near Cross and Light streets blew into the air.
It was not immediately known if the covers blew because of methane gas exploding or pressure from the fire, Cartwright said. No injuries were reported.
Jason Teegardin, an employee of an ice cream shop near the scene, said he heard sirens about 4 p.m. and noticed smoke coming out of the Stalking Horse, which opened a few weeks ago.
"All I could see was black smoke flying out of the building," he said. While he watched, a manhole cover on nearby Cross Street blew into the air and landed in the street.
Teegardin said two more covers flew into the air seconds later.
"It was scary as hell," he said. "It sounded like bombs were going off all over the city."
Moments after the fire was reported and power outages began, city police detoured rush-hour Federal Hill traffic away from the area, while BGE crews went underground to turn off power to homes and businesses, said Linda Foy, a BGE spokeswoman.
Foy said power to homes and businesses farthest from the origin of the electrical failures were expected to have their power restored sooner than about 30 others who are closest to the undeground power disruption.
Cartwright said employees and customers at the usually crowded Cross Street Market were evacuated. He said the market's backup generators were expected to prevent perishable food items from spoiling.
Martin Ande, 64, an employee of Steve's Lunch at the market, said he returned to the market about 7 p.m. and had to throw away about two dozen Polish and regular hot dogs.
"They were on the grill and heating up real good when the power went out," he said.
Cartwright said more than two dozen children at the South Baltimore Recreation Center near Light and Cross streets, along with staff members, were ordered to leave the building.
Sun photographer Algerina Perna contributed to this article.