2 hurt in W-B blast
February 15. 2013 4:49PM
WILKES-BARRE – Two PPL utility employees were injured in a pre-dawn underground explosion Sunday in downtown that left more than 1,200 customers without power for several hours.
Wilkes-Barre firefighters take photos of the scene at Union Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in the city early Sunday.
FRED ADAMS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER
Businesses without power
Probe of underground W-B blast goes on
The fire department responded at 4:21 a.m. Sunday for an initial report of a couple of vehicles on fire at the corner of Union Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Thomas C. Thomas Building.
Assistant Fire Chief Ed Snarski said firefighters could see a “globe of fire and a big plume of smoke” rising as they were en route.
When crews arrived, they found the two employees in the street and a large fire coming from the underground electrical vault, just outside the Thomas Building, which houses Luzerne County’s Central Court, Snarski said.
Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney said one employee was seriously injured and the other employee suffered moderate injuries. The employees’ names and hometowns were not released. They were transported to Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center for treatment.
The employee working inside the vault was later taken to Lehigh Valley Medical Center, according to PPL spokesman Rich Beasley. It is PPL’s company policy not to release the names or conditions of employees who are injured on the job, Beasley said.
Lehigh Valley personnel could not release the man’s condition because his name is not being released.
The other employee who was working outside the vault was released after being examined at Geisinger, according to Beasley.
Delaney noted early Sunday morning during a brief press conference that one of the employees was alert and communicating with ambulance personnel as he was being transported, Delaney said. A Wilkes-Barre police officer, whose name was not available Sunday, was treated for smoke inhalation, Delaney added.
To keep the fire from spreading, the fire department hosed down the Thomas Building to contain the fire to the underground vault area.
“We put a (water) line on the building to make sure the fire didn’t extend into the building. The fire has been contained at this point to the vault area. There was no extension into the building,” Snarski said. The Thomas Building and its metal railings did receive heavy black charring.
By 5:45 a.m. the fire had nearly burned itself out, Delaney noted.
“Basically, when there is an electrical fire the best way to handle it is to let it burn. The equipment has been damaged already and is considered a loss to them. It is safer to let the fire burn itself out than it is to fight the fire and possibly have someone electrocuted,” Delaney said.
As fire crews remained on the scene until specially trained employees from PPL could arrive, crackling and pops of what sounded to be small explosions could be heard.
“Every once in a while there is a zap of electricity, which it is probably trying to re-energize itself because a grid usually works in a circular manner,” Snarski said. Fire department personnel remained on the scene until 7:59 a.m., according to department records.
The department was worried about underground gas lines rupturing due to the extreme heat, so a UGI natural gas representative was waiting nearby if service needed to be shut off, Snarski said.
PPL began an internal investigation later Sunday to determine how the fire started. It’s unknown when the investigation will be completed.
“We have people who are versed in underground electrical systems and safety and those people will conduct the investigation,” Beasley said.
The two employees were originally working on the underground wiring to restore service to seven customers in downtown who lost power sometime around 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
It’s unknown exactly when the employees involved in the blast arrived on scene to restore power from Saturday’s outage. Beasley said both men were company veterans.
He noted all employees that work with underground utilities receive additional specialized training before working with such systems.
Once the fire broke out, about 1,200 customers, including the Wilkes-Barre Police Department, lost power.
Would-be criminals did not get a break, though. The police department resorted to using generators to operate lights, phones and minimal computer equipment throughout the day, according to Lt. Steve Olshefski.
“As far as calls for the public are concerned, we don’t even miss a beat. We have electricity that is supplied to all our critical areas. If anything, we are lacking electricity in some administrative functions,” Olshefski said.
“We can live with that,” he added.
Throughout the day, other PPL-trained employees worked to restore service.
By 9:40 a.m. Sunday, 159 customers in Wilkes-Barre were still without service. That number shrank to 85 by 2:55 p.m., and shrank again to 22 by 5 p.m., according to the company’s outage report on its Web site.
All electric service was restored by 11 p.m. Sunday, according to the PPL Web site.