Underground vault fire investigated in San Francisco

January 1, 2010 6:44:43 PM PST
An equipment failure caused an underground PG&E electrical vault to explode into flames Friday morning. It's the first vault fire of the year, but one that brought back memories and fears of terrifying vault explosions throughout the city in the past few years.

The smoke and noise that escaped from the PG&E manhole at about 11 a.m. terrified neighbors -- especially Hussein Abdosh whose convenience store is no more than 30 feet away.

"I can see heavy black smoke, very thick, coming out and it sound like 'poof' - like that," said Abdosh.

Abdosh quickly called 911. San Francisco police and fire responded rerouting traffic and pedestrians around the area surrounding Geary and Jones streets.

"We just evacuated the streets and evacuated in place the buildings," said San Francisco Fire Dept. Batt. Chief Victor Wyrsch.

Within a half an hour, fire crews using a new CO2 unit smothered the flames with the gas. PG&E says equipment failure caused the fire. Abdosh was relieved by the quick response.

"I thought it was going to blow up because it reminded me of what happened on Market Street," said Abdosh.

There were no injuries or power outages because of this vault fire. But several other vault explosions have occurred in San Francisco in the past few years, one was almost fatal. That vault explosion and fire happened in 2005, on Market Street. There was another huge vault explosion at the Crocker Galleria that same year. Photos show flames and the buckled sidewalk caused by the powerful vault blast which blew the manhole cover 30 feet into the air. Lisa Nash, who was crossing the street at the time, was burned on over 50 percent of her body.

"As soon as I got back to my apartment there was an explosion, I don't know what it was," said Polk Street resident John Waka.

Last year, at Polk and O'Farrell a vault fire knocked out power at John Waka's home. PG&E says despite the number of highly visible vault fires and explosions they have a lower rate of incidents than the national average.