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HEADLINE: Blast Shakes Downtown S. B. AEP Transformer Explodes

By KATHY BORLIK Tribune Staff Writer

South Bend firefighters work at extinguishing a fire about 10:30 a.m. Thursday under the sidewalk in the 300 block of South Main Street in front of the Ameritech Building. An AEP transformer exploded and caught fire. Tribune Photos/BARBARA ALLISON

SOUTH BEND -- An explosion about 10:30 a.m. Thursday sent scores of downtown employees to their windows to see the rolling smoke in the 300 block of South Main Street.

The smoke accompanied flames that until about 11 a.m. poured out of the sidewalk in front of the Ameritech Building after an AEP transformer exploded.

There were no injuries.

"It (the explosion) rocked the building,'' said Heidi Eash, an employee of Sommers Graphics Inc., 323 S. Main St. "We ran downstairs and saw the fire and smoke."

Susan Sheets, spokesperson for AEP, said no cause was determined yet, and the investigation will probably start today.

Sheets said the other transformer in the same location was continuing to work.

She added that AEP workers were doing some cleanup Thursday afternoon under the sidewalk where the transformer exploded.

At first there were fears that the smoke was toxic, but Sheets said that was not the case.

The explosion caused a split-second power outage in the downtown and a longer outage at the Memorial Leighton HealthPlex at Jefferson and Main.

Sheets said AEP was concentrating Thursday afternoon at re-establishing service at Memorial Leighton.

Margaret Sak, clinic manager of Memorial Outpatient Therapy Services, said the health club, the HealthWorks! Kids Museum and first-floor rehabilitation and sports medicine offices were still in the dark by late afternoon.

"We were escorting patients in and out with flashlights'' to the parking garage, Sak said.

Fitness classes continued at noon with the help of a battery-operated boombox and flashlights in the locker room.

One man was stuck in the parking garage elevator for about 10 minutes, Sak said.

At Ameritech, power was switched immediately to a backup generator and there was no disruption in phone service. Ameritech returned to normal electric service at 1 p.m.

About 80 Ameritech employees were evacuated for about 30 minutes to a nearby parking lot.

Mike Marker, a spokesman for Ameritech, said the operators finished the calls they were on and then evacuated. The calls then were routed to Indianapolis or Bloomington.

Also affected for about 90 minutes was traffic on Main from Western Avenue to Jefferson Boulevard, as streets were blocked off.

Eash and fellow employees from Sommers watched from open windows on the second floor of their building as city firefighters sprayed foam down into the transformer shaft.

The fire was so intense that an Ameritech awning was scorched.

Deb Futa, assistant director of the St. Joseph County Public Library, said the library's lights flickered and then came back on.

"We were worried if we should evacuate," Futa said. "We decided not to. If anyone had to leave, they left by the back door.''

Futa said she felt the explosion from her office and came downstairs to see the smoke.

Doyle Owens, area manager for operator services for Ameritech, said the explosion "got everyone's attention.''

To reach Kathy Borlik: (219) 235-6556


-- (, April 14, 2000

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