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Underground transformer explodes in downtown St. Petersburg (w/video)

Emergency workers work to contain a fire around a smoking manhole near Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg on Monday.
Published May 24, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — An underground electrical transformer caught fire and exploded near Williams Park downtown Monday evening, shooting flames through a grate and knocking out power for hundreds of customers.

People in the area noticed green-yellow smoke trickling, then pouring, through a manhole cover on Third Street N about 5:30 p.m. Some felt the ground rumble and heard loud popping noises, then flames suddenly burst up.

Raw video: Underground transformer fire causes manhole cover explosion

"It started off as simple as a little smoke stream coming out of manhole covers and grates," said Josh Cameron, owner of both Fortunato's Italian Market and the Oyster Bar on Central Avenue. "The next thing you know, it sounded like gunshots, and our power started going off and on."

Duke Energy said that it was still looking into the cause of the fire, but that it stemmed from a problem with the transformer. A manhole cover on the same block blew on Sunday due to an issue within the same electrical system, Duke Energy spokeswoman Suzanne Grant said.

"They may be related, they may not be," she said. "They're in the same underground vault."

There were no reported injuries in either incident.

An hour after the explosion, nearly all of the 748 affected customers had power again, Grant said. Eighteen, including restaurants and bars on busy Central Avenue, were told it could be 24 hours until power was restored.

Grant said Duke will set up a temporary transformer to restore power to all businesses by 9 a.m. today. She said a long-term repair will follow.

Lucky Dill manager Dennis Clarke said the outage was "a big loss" to the entire block.

"Two days in a row — we're just lucky no one got hurt," he said. He was working along with other restaurants to get perishables into a refrigerated truck.

Cameron spent Monday evening putting seafood in coolers. He estimated the loss in the thousands.

"Any day of the week, it's a good night in St. Pete," he said. And after Sunday's incident, he said, "Now you're kind of faced with Groundhog Day."

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