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Underground blast zaps power in city

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

A predawn explosion under S Fort Harrison Avenue on Monday morning lifted a manhole cover, shattered windows in a nearby building and led to a day of inconvenience for more than a dozen downtown businesses and offices.

Power company officials think the explosion was caused by an underground electrical wire that caught fire and ignited methane gas from a sewer line. A city utilities official, however, doubted that theory.

No one was hurt, but the explosion cut electricity to 100 customers in a three-block radius of Cleveland Street and S Fort Harrison. Most were restored by 8:55 a.m. Monday, but some had trouble using their equipment Monday morning because voltage in the lines remained low until noon.

The blast broke some windows and the facade of an empty Church of Scientology building classroom.

"Thankfully, it happened at 4:30 in the morning, as opposed to when someone was in the room or cars were out there," said Pat Harney, a spokeswoman for the church.

Hours later, the studio at WTAN-AM 1340 was dark and empty Monday morning, the time when a sound engineer is usually there cuing Imus in the Morning.

Starbucks' doors were closed and locked.

The sewing machine and irons at Helen's Tailoring, an alterations shop on the same block, were idle.

In the block bordered by Cleveland Street, S Fort Harrison Avenue, Pierce Street and S Osceola Avenue, business after business waited to be reconnected to power Monday.

Also shut down Monday by the power failure was the Pinellas County Utilities building on S Fort Harrison Avenue.

Two Progress Energy crews were working Monday to restore power to about 15 remaining customers on the Cleveland Street block, the last one without power, and Progress Energy loaned some businesses generators that allowed them to reopen by 4 p.m. Monday.

Still, power to some businesses was not expected to be restored until today, Progress Energy spokesman Aaron Perlut said.

The 4 a.m. fire began in an electrical wire below an alley that runs between Cleveland and Pierce. The fire traveled east along a duct and caused the explosion.

The electrical wire caught fire because it had a short circuit that may have been caused by normal wear and tear, overheating or an animal, Perlut said. He said Progress Energy crews often encounter methane gas when they go into manholes to work. That's why he suspects the presence of methane gas in this case.

But Clearwater assistant director of public utilities Todd Petrie said it's unlikely that methane gas played a role in the explosion. The sanitary sewer system is designed to release methane gas through vent stacks atop buildings.

The power failure caused Clearwater city commissioners, who were without power at City Hall until 8:50 a.m., to start their 9 a.m. work session a few minutes late, City Manager Bill Horne said.

The Pinellas County Courthouse _ home to offices for county commissioners, the county administrator and the county attorney _ was also without power for about an hour.

Government officials spent most of the morning trying to get the county's computer system working. But the county's 911 emergency network, which relied on generators, was not affected, county Administrator Steve Spratt said.

At some shops on the final block without power Monday afternoon, employees twiddled their thumbs while waiting for the lights to come back on.

Starbucks dispensed free coffee and free chocolate biscotti on the sidewalk, while four employees played a card game on their store's patio.

At Helen's Tailoring, Betty Lakiotis, the owner, and Eleni Vorvis, her mother, sat by a window hemming pants by hand. They had brewed a pot of their morning coffee with a candle.

A wedding dress that needed to be cut from a size 18 to a size 10 by 6 p.m. Monday evening was hanging on a rack nearby.

"If I don't get the electricity back, I'm going to have to do it by hand and that will take all night," Lakiotis said.