5 injured in steam pipe explosion on Eutaw Street in Baltimore

Five people were injured Tuesday evening after an underground steam pipe exploded downtown, sending mud and chunks of asphalt into the air and breaking the windows of cars parked nearby.

The injuries suffered by the five people were characterized by fire officials as "low-level."

The explosion on Eutaw Street between West Lombard and Pratt streets occurred about 6:15 p.m., less than an hour before an Orioles game was scheduled to start.

Firefighters sprayed water on the nearby Marriott hotel to ensure that the facade didn't melt. Debris covered cars and an abandoned stand where a vendor had been selling hats, soda and water.

"We really dodged a major catastrophe here," said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. "I'm just glad the citizens of Baltimore are safe and those attending our Orioles game are safe."

Police shut down streets around the explosion site, including Eutaw and Pratt. Wednesday morning traffic is expected to be impacted as the Baltimore Office of Emergency Management warned that road closures in the area are likely to continue. The city Department of Transportation could not be reached for details. The University of Maryland Medical Center tweeted out a message, warning patients to be aware of potential road closures.

Veolia North America, which operates the city's steam pipe network, sent emergency crews to the scene and shut off the steam to the affected area, a company spokeswoman said Tuesday evening. "At this time, the root cause of the steam release is not known," but the company has started an investigation, Karole Colangelo said.

Pugh said there were no plans to investigate other steam pipes downtown. "We have to see what the cause of this is first," she said.

Kevin Williams usually sells water and sodas near the corner of Pratt and Eutaw streets before Baltimore Orioles games, but on Tuesday afternoon, he said he had to move because the sidewalk was too hot. Shortly after, he heard a boom and saw steam billowing out of the ground.

"You could feel the heat coming off the ground real heavy," Williams said. "I was there about an hour before. I'm glad I moved."

"The ground just blew up," said 47-year-old Kevin King, another street vendor who was standing across on Pratt Street across from the blast. "Rocks just went all the way around, debris just went everywhere. ... It sounded like a bomb — boom."

Williams said two other street vendors he knew who had set up right next to the explosion site were injured. They had cuts on their arms and other minor injuries, he said.

Sixteen of miles of conduits snake underground in Baltimore, carrying steam that is used to heat downtown office buildings, sterilize medical equipment and clean laundry. In the past, the steam has melted and warped street surfaces, and crews use the vent pipes known as "stacks" to vent excess steam.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. responded to the scene at the request of the city, said BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy.

Foy said it did not appear that BGE's gas or electric systems were involved after officials did preliminary work. The company intended to keep workers at the the scene, Foy said.

Four of the injured people were taken to University of Maryland Medical Center. Later Tuesday night, two had been discharged, a spokeswoman said.

Not long after the explosion, Jesse Betts, 29, from New York, sat at Frank & Nic's West End Grille on Paca Street, having left from the rear of the Marriott Hotel to grab some food and drinks.

Betts said he was in the Marriott lobby with three of his co-workers, all in town for a meeting of Ryder Truck Rental employees, when the explosion occurred.

"There was a loud noise and people started rushing toward the front of the hotel," he said. "Hotel staff kind of grabbed everybody, brought them back in."

Some windows in the hotel were shattered, and nearby cars were covered in debris. Two people who appeared to be father and son came into the hotel soon after with injuries, Betts said.

"They got hit with a little bit of shrapnel. They were right across the street, within I would say maybe 25 feet of the explosion. [They had] a little bit of blood on their arms," Betts said. "The EMTs were kind of looking at their heads to see if there were any head injuries. They ended up getting wrapped with some bandages. Nothing too serious, though."

"I would have expected more panicked running than there was," said Lance Brittain, 32, from New Jersey. "Everyone was kind of just like, 'OK.'"

Two other co-workers — Juan Perez, 33, of Newark, N.J., and Paige Hoehl, 23, of Baltimore — were on the street about a block away, walking to meet Betts and the others, when the explosion occurred. They didn't see it happen, but heard it and then saw all the steam rising into the air, they said.

Hoehl said her first thought was, "bomb," but it quickly became clear that was not the case.

Jason Aversano, 28, of Philadelphia, who was in the lobby with Betts, said hotel staff quickly shared information with guests as it became available, which helped keep people calm. The fact that there was no fire after the explosion also helped, he said.

"We got information right away, so we weren't left to wonder," he said. "Had I not had that information, I don't know what I would have thought."

Allen Bennett was taking his 15-year-old son to his first Orioles game when the explosion took place. The 38-year-old Pikesville resident said his first thought was just to get away.

"We saw all the smoke just billowing and dark," Bennett said. "It was really scary."

trichman@baltsun.com

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