Underground blast jolts Chinatown 

An explosion inside an underground electrical vault rocked Chinatown on Wednesday afternoon, rupturing a natural gas line that Pacific Gas and Electric struggled to repair for nearly three hours.

The explosion occurred at 2:34 p.m. on the 800 block of Washington Street at Waverly Place as PG&E crews were working in the area. The force of the explosion caused a 2-inch gas line near the vault to leak and shot gas, smoke and a manhole cover into the air.

"It was spewing straight out and you could smell gas," San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Ken Smith said.

No one was injured in the explosion, but part of Washington Street, along with Waverly Place and Ross Alley, were evacuated as a precaution. Parts of Clay, Stockton and Grant streets were closed to pedestrians and through traffic, and power was shut off, leaving 150 people without power for nearly three hours.

"The gas leak was sizable, but the good news is that it was contained to the vault," PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said, adding that the leak was not poisonous because it was natural gas.

Sewage gas, naturally occurring methane and other flammable vapors can collect in passageways and only need the proper ignition to cause an explosion.

There was an explosion and smoke but no fire underground, Smith said.

Examiner reader Jenna Andrews submitted this photo of the Chinatown blast.

PG&E could not confirm whether the workers caused the explosion.

As rain began to pour, crowds gathered behind yellow police tape as police and translators explained to confused residents that the streets were not open to pedestrians. Some walked by holding their jackets up to their noses, trying to avoid breathing in the gas.

Crews dug using jackhammers into Washington Street to shut off the leaking gas line. The leak was finally contained by 5:15 p.m., and crews were able to safely enter the 5-foot-by-5-foot electrical vault to start their investigation into the cause of the explosion, Moreno said.

Muni service on the 1-California line was rerouted for three hours as crews blocked off Clay Street, according to MTA spokeswoman Kristin Holland.

Maria Lau, who works at the Buddha Bar at 901 Grant St., said she was behind the bar when she heard a loud noise that sounded like a bomb. She rushed outside and was told by crews that power in the bar would be shut off.

Residents and business owners were allowed to return to the evacuated streets by 7 p.m., Moreno said.

IHS Gallery owner Isaac Shabtai was in his business at the time of the explosion and said it sounded like "someone dropped something on us."

Freshly dug-up Washington Street would be closed to traffic well into the night, Moreno said.

Crises strain S.F.-PG&E relationship

Relations between Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and The City have been strained over the years as explosions and underground fires have wreaked havoc on citizens, causing injury, inconvenience and economic damage.

Nearly one year ago, the utility company paid $6.5 million in lieu of fines for a huge power outage affecting more than 100,000 customers on Dec. 20, 2003 — the busiest shopping day of that year.

The outage was caused by a fire at the substation at Eighth and Mission and cost The City untold dollars in sales revenue.

City officials were angered by PG&E neglecting to notify the Fire Department until two hours after the fire occurred despite significant smoke, said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office. Customers regained power more than 24 hours after the event occurred.

In August 2005, an underground explosion shook the Financial District, rocketing a manhole cover into the air, damaging storefronts and sidewalks, and sending a woman to the hospital with critical burn wounds.

That explosion spurred PG&E to inspect all of its underground electrical vaults for maintenance issues.

During 2006, there were at least three separate underground fires affecting thousands of PG&E customers.

"On many, many fronts, we have issues with PG&E," Dorsey said. Approximately $5.5 million of last year’s $6.5 million payout went directly to The City for reliability improvements, fire and public safety improvements, and visual improvements to the Hunters Point substation.

eeconomides@examiner.com

Staff Writer David Smith contributed to this report.

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