According to Richmond-Times Dispatch on July 24th:
Lyn Bew noticed white smoke trickling from a manhole cover on Richmond’s East Main Street on Friday morning before he drove over it and parked about 50 feet away.
The first explosion came seconds later. And as he walked toward the sound and saw black smoke rising from the cover he had just passed, another explosion from the manhole sent flames 20 feet high, by his estimate.
At least three explosions caused by a faulty electrical cable downtown near Sixth and Main streets shook nearby buildings and knocked out power along several blocks about 11:15 a.m. Friday, but no one was seriously injured.
Bew couldn’t shake the thought that any slight delay could have put him directly on top of the first blast.
“I just thank God it waited, because 20 seconds earlier it would have popped my head off, probably,” said Bew, 47, of Chesterfield County. “I’m very lucky, I know.”
A low-voltage underground cable likely caught fire, burning through insulation and creating gas-filled smoke that eventually ignited in what utility officials described as a rare but not unheard-of phenomenon. Dominion Virginia Power almost immediately switched off electricity in the area to prevent further explosions.
“The thing that happened today happens occasionally across the country,” said Tony Savage, manager of the group that handles the utility’s urban infrastructure around the state. “There’s all kinds of different reasons (cables) will fail. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s rats that have gotten in our duct. Maybe it’s the vibration from heavy traffic over lots of years.”
Savage said Dominion Virginia Power will try to determine the exact cause of the explosions, but that may not be possible.
A Richmond fire spokesman said crews arrived within four minutes of the first report. People were rescued from elevators in at least four separate calls as the surrounding buildings were evacuated and the situation was quickly brought under control, he said.
Rick Bevan, superintendent of a remodeling job at Sixth and Main streets, said he was outside the building with another man when he heard an explosion. He turned and saw fire coming from two manholes, the closest about 50 feet away.
“We were just out there on the sidewalk, and you could see it flame up, and then the flame would go back down and smoke would come up, and then a little bit later, the flame would come up again,” Bevan said.
Lin Parker was inside a convenience store at Sixth and East Franklin streets and said he saw a car on fire parked over a manhole.
Power that was knocked out from the 500 through the 800 blocks of East Main Street was restored Friday afternoon after utility workers cleared the smoke and began inspecting the damage.
A few reports of underground explosions emerging through manhole covers have occurred in downtown Richmond in recent years, including in 2014, 2010 and 2007, and no one was hurt in any of them.
Dominion Virginia Power routinely inspects and maintains its underground grid through downtown, said Jeff Hutchinson, manager of the utility’s Central Regional Operations center.
“They do inspections routinely, but there’s parts of the system that you can’t inspect,” Hutchinson said. “The prevention goes quite a ways, but there’s a point where prevention doesn’t reach every part of the system.”