Tonawanda News

November 22, 2012

Electrical mishap darkens city block

By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Power was lost to an entire block home to several City of Tonawanda businesses Wednesday evening following what officials believe was an underground electrical fire and possible explosion.

A business plaza home to Beijing Garden restaurant, Dollar General and other storefronts between Main and Seymour streets sat darkened on Thanksgiving eve, after proprietors reported feeling the building shake before black smoke could be seen pouring from a nearby manhole.

No significant structural damage or injuries were reported. 

“All of a sudden we felt some shaking and there was dark smoke coming out of the sewer,” Ming Ong, owner of the Chinese restaurant, said.

City of Tonawanda Fire Chief Charles Stuart said the grate issuing smoke was located next to a manhole leading to an underground power junction, where some sort of fire accompanied by an explosion had taken place.

Ong said that was followed by lights blinking on and off in her restaurant, before going out completely.

“Today’s a busy day — the day before Thanksgiving,” she said, adding the restaurant probably lost about a half day’s worth of business to the outage.

The plaza, also home to a Subway franchise, is owned by Benderson Development. Across the parking lot, the outage and subsequent response also darkened nearby Rite Aid, McDonalds and a Citizen’s Bank branch.

Employees of the pharmacy were seen toting coolers into the store just before 7 p.m., and firefighters and officials from National Grid worked to investigate the cause of the smoke, which had ceased.

An acrid smell of burning electrical components hung in the air.

Stuart said a 911 call came in at 5 p.m., but the explosion happened around 3 p.m.

In the meantime, it appears business tenants were unsure of what exactly had happened, and Stuart said Benderson reported getting calls about the smoke during the ensuring two hours, which were related to responders.

Stuart said the power junction is an access point to several high-voltage supply cables. Following the fire, a service panel located in a room in the rear of the plaza had filled with unusually pungent smoke, he said.

“It was really chugging,” he said. “It was thick, black smoke and really pungent — more than what we typically get from an electrical fire.”

He said neither the fire department nor National Grid has yet identified whether the fire involved the utility’s infrastructure or private installations. The fire appears to have taken place somewhere between the manhole and a nearby, above-ground relay panel located near some shrubs.

National Grid officials late Wednesday did not announce how long power would be out to the businesses — spread throughout an entire city block.

“It’s going to be long term,” Stuart said. “The goal is to isolate the buildings from the feed where the problem occurred and get the heat back on and get the businesses back up and running while the repairs are made.”

Billy Szortyka, a senior property supervisor for Benderson, said the building owner is working to keep in close contact with tenants while officials probe the problem — but that it’s difficult to put a time frame on the fix.

“What we’ll do is our best to try to get everybody up and running,” Szortyka said. “Given the situation we’re not sure if that’s  possible right now. We’ll just move forward and try to make sure it goes smoothly.”

Contact city editor

Neale Gulley

at 693-1000, ext. 4114.

Contact city editor Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 4114.