Underground Blast Rattles SF

PG&E crews looking into source of problem

Hundreds in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood woke up with no power on Saturday after a crazy scene on the street the afternoon before.

It all started Friday just before noon with an underground explosion at the intersection of Polk and O’Farrell streets. Before long, flames and huge plumes of black smoke poured from a manhole.

The source of the flames was an underground explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric transformer that knocked out power to about 8,600 customers. Crews got to work restoring power and the outage stood at about 730 by Saturday morning.

About 550 were still waiting for power by about 2 p.m.

Nobody from PG&E had been underground to check out the problem as of about 10 a.m. Saturday. While they aren't calling the incident an "explosion," a representative from the utility did say they were making sure it wouldn't happen again.  The main priority is "to safely and quickly restore power to customers." spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers said.

During it’s height, the smoke was so heavy, an NBC Bay Area photographer had to move back from the area for a time. It took nearly two hours for the fire to burn itself out.

A group of people gathered a block away, at Van Ness Avenue and O'Farrell Street, watched the flames in awe, exclaiming "Oh my God!"

The flames shot two stories in the air in a tornado pattern with the noxious smelling smoke lifting high above area high rises.

Police closed off streets for four blocks in all directions around the fire. At least four plastic cones that were set up just outside the manhole completely melted into small piles of orange goo.

Although there was never an official evacuation order, San Francisco police used megaphones to order people out of the area. They said they did that out of fear that hazardous or toxic chemicals could be in the smoke.

No injuries were reported but firefighters had to rescue some people who were stuck in elevators because of the power outage.

PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said the first report of an outage came in around 11:36 p.m., which is probably when the equipment failed.

A PG&E spokeswoman said it was not immediately clear what caused the explosion or what toxins, if any, where in the smoke.

A man who was watching the movie "The Hangover" at the AMC Van Ness 14 theater said that about five minutes into the film, the theater went completely black and everyone was evacuated.

A shelter-in-place warning was issued to prevent people from walking and driving in the area, but the warning was lifted when the fire died out.

"We apologize to our customers and know that this is an inconvenience and a concern to our customers," PG&E spokeswoman Sarkissian said. "It's a concern to us as well and we're doing everything we  can to make sure that the power gets back on."

Mayor Gavin Newsom was at the fire department's mobile command center at O'Farrell Street and Van Ness Avenue around 2:15 p.m., getting  briefed on the incident.

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