An explosion sent a metal manhole cover flying into the air yesterday evening, apparently caused by an electrical fire that burned for hours under North Charles Street downtown, causing power to be cut to a large swath of downtown, slightly injuring a pedestrian and emptying restaurants and bars of patrons.
Traffic was diverted off one of the city's main thoroughfares starting shortly after 5 p.m., during the height of the evening rush hour, and the closures continued into this morning. Dozens of firefighters converged on Charles Street between Saratoga and Mulberry streets to evacuate residents and work on extinguishing the blaze.
About five hours later, electricity was shut off to a 25-square-block area to assist firefighters in efforts to find the source of the blaze in an underground conduit pipe, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.
Hours after the explosion, light gray smoke could be seen coming from the manhole.
Cartwright said that after the initial explosion, flames shot 12 to 14 feet into the air, and thick, black smoke poured from the hole. At 12:30 a.m. today, Cartwright said the fire was still burning underground but that firefighters had made significant progress. About 150 firefighters, BGE workers and police were on the scene.
"It can be a challenge to fight because of the underground location," Cartwright said.
After attempts to suffocate the fire with a carbon dioxide substance were unsuccessful, electricity was cut to a grid that encompasses Monument Street to the north, Charles Street to the east, Baltimore Street to the south and Greene Street to the west, Cartwright said. The outage, which was put into effect to help firefighters hunt down the source of the fire and to allow BGE crews to fix the damage, was expected to last approximately 3 1/2 hours, he said.
Last night, the scene resembled more of a construction project than a fire, as crews waited for BGE to shut off power before climbing into the hole. Late last night, some traffic lights and many streetlights were out. Entire buildings were dark, while others had lights on. Sporadic buildings still had power because they were on another power grid, Cartwright said.
At 5:30 p.m., a firefighter could be heard on his radio, "We have burning under the street." An hour later, a fire commander ordered firefighters on Charles Street to rest: "All units, drop your turnouts and helmets. Cool down." Still another firefighter: "We won't know anything until we can get under the streets."
Robert L. Gould, a BGE spokesman, said crews hoped to have the fire out and equipment fixed today.
Cartwright said the affected stretch of Charles Street would be closed to traffic at least until midmorning today, when possibly one lane will open. He said it was too early to determine the cause of the fire.
In 2001, three 300-pound manhole covers near Pratt and Light streets blew 4 feet into the air early on a Saturday morning, causing no injuries.
Yesterday, restaurant workers along normally busy Charles Street were stuck inside their empty establishments, brooding over lost customers and canceled reservations.
At Mick O'Shea's pub at 328 N. Charles St., the street directly outside was busy with firefighters and fire engines. The manager, Laura Flanagan, estimated that business was down 50 percent, but those customers who made it in before the explosion were staying.
Anyone leaving had to hustle up an alley rather than through the front, she said, so "whoever made it in is kind of trapped."
At the Italian restaurant Sotta Sopra, waitress Natasha Kashevorava said that several patrons with reservations could not get there. She said Monday nights, typically slow for the restaurant business, are busy at Sotta Sopra because it offers bottles of wine at half-price.
"We usually get people walking in, but no walk-ins tonight," she said.
At Cazbar in the 300 block of N. Charles St., manager Turk Cantor said the injured woman was brought in by a bicyclist and treated for a small burn on her leg. "We gave her ice and water," Cantor said. Fire officials said she declined medical attention.
Cantor said that the explosion occurred after the lunch crowd had left and before the dinner patrons arrived. He said no customers were inside at the time, and none had come in since. "We are supposed to have dinner right now," he said at 7 p.m. "There is nothing we can do. The street is closed."
He said three of his employees left, leaving him with just one cook and two servers. "Even if we could open right now, we would be very limited," Turk said. "We cannot serve fully."
Gould, the BGE spokesman, said last night that the cause of the fire would not be known until firefighters could reach the blaze.
Sun reporters Brent Jones, Annie Linskey and Justine Maki contributed to this article.