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Electrical Explosion Shakes S.F.

Times Staff Writer

An underground electrical explosion here Friday triggered a sweeping law enforcement response to rule out the possibility of a terrorist strike, shuttering a large swath of the city’s upscale shopping district for hours.

The blast shortly before 10 a.m. was ultimately traced to a faulty transformer in a Pacific Gas & Electric electrical vault. It sent flames shooting 15 feet into the air, hurled a massive concrete vault cover across the street, and sent one woman to a local burn center in critical but stable condition.

It also prompted the evacuation of hundreds of employees in the area surrounding the Crocker Galleria, a posh shopping hub close to Union Square. Dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement officials sprang into action within minutes, in the first live test of a terrorist response protocol they have been practicing monthly.

Four and a half hours later, an agitated Mayor Gavin Newsom ruled out foul play.

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“There is absolutely nothing to suggest terrorism -- nothing to suggest malfeasance,” he said, noting that no bomb residue was detected in or around the underground vault.

Newsom also lashed out at PG&E;, which has experienced a series of fires and outages recently and is the target of a broad-based political effort here to place power delivery in the hands of a public entity.

The incident, coupled with an unrelated problem at a nearby substation Friday, left 2,400 customers, including city social service agencies, without electricity.

It also caused tensions between the city and the private utility to soar.

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“This has cost the taxpayers an enormous amount and, God willing, will not cost a person’s life,” said an angry Newsom, flanked by the city’s police and fire chiefs. “PG&E; will be held accountable for the financial consequences. This is unacceptable and cannot continue.”

The city’s chief administrative officer was dispatched to the scene to tally the public cost, and the city attorney was notified. Newsom encouraged private businesses that lost money from the lengthy street closures to seek compensation from the private utility.

He said that more than 75 police officers and firefighters responded to the scene, many in less than three minutes after the blast.

In accordance with anti-terror protocols developed since Sept. 11, the FBI and hazardous materials experts from the state’s Environmental Protection Agency were on hand. The state Office of Emergency Services was also notified.

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Visibly chastened, Jeff Butler, PG&E;'s senior vice president of transmission and distribution, wished a speedy recovery for the injured woman, whose family asked that no personal information about her be disclosed.

He said the utility had been working to improve operations since a recent substation fire widely disrupted service to the city.

He could not recall another explosion of this type and said the incident would be thoroughly investigated.

“I would welcome the city to join us in reviewing all our maintenance and safety records,” he said.

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The blast occurred as many employees were just getting to work and as high-end shops -- the blast occurred directly in front of a Ralph Lauren boutique -- were opening.

“It’s a very traveled intersection,” said attorney Kirsten Galler, 26, who was across the street when the blast sent a wall of flame into the air and a black cloud billowing toward her.

Although Galler said she thought from the beginning that the blast, which sent two manhole covers flying, was accidental, others immediately suspected a terrorist hit.

“It was a hell of a jolt. There were sparks and flames and billowing smoke,” said Lowell Haky, 43, an attorney for Charles Schwab, who evacuated his upstairs office immediately according to a plan implemented after Sept. 11.

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“When we ran out of the building, there was a piece of burning metal on the ground,” he said. “We all took off, thinking that it could be a bomb.”


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