Update Montreal subway explosions

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Explosion in a manhole? Hmmmm seems I have seen that before.

Sunday 16 April 2000

Metro knocked out

Transit chaos for thousands as electric fire closes subway NICOLAS VAN PRAET and INGRID PHANEUF, DARREN BECKER of The Gazette contributed to this report The Gazette

Transit users in Montreal were forced to cope yesterday with the biggest subway stoppage the city has ever experienced - a six-hour paralysis caused by a electric fire in a manhole.

People who normally travel below-ground spilled onto the sidewalks. For a city second only to New York in percentage of residents who use the transit system, the impact was enormous.

More than 200,000 metro-users were herded onto 150 backup buses or obliged to find other transportation starting about 8 a.m., after an explosion in an underground electric-cable chamber knocked out the communication and ventilation systems in all 65 stations.

That means users would not have been able to breathe fresh air in the subway tunnels and metro drivers would have had no way to communicate. The green and red lights indicating safe passage through the tunnels also lost power.

No one was injured.

'Should Never Happen'

"This is an unforeseeable event that should never happen," said Montreal Urban Community Transit Corp. spokesman Odile Paradis.

"People were crowded and delayed for sure. We saw today just how essential the subway service is."

Her words were little consolation for those who count on the metro to get where they need to go on time.

"I'm trying to get to the Jewish General (Hospital) with my kids," Elaine Stewart said outside the Parc metro station at the corner of Jean Talon and Hutchison Sts. in Park Extension.

"I had to walk here from the Acadie metro station, and now I'm going to have to take a shuttle bus. We're supposed to be there by 1:30 p.m."

It was 12:30 p.m., and Stewart still had a long way to go.

Still, it was warm, sunny and Saturday. What could have been a nasty weekday rush-hour crowd was actually a ticked-off-but-not-angry-beyond-belief lot.

"We'll walk, that's all," said Yamina Bennai, who was taking her 6-year-old and 2-year-old to the movies downtown from the Laurier metro station.

"The kids are young but they'll survive."

Partial metro service was restored by mid-afternoon. But service to all of the blue line and to the orange line between Berri-UQAM and Henri Bourassa stations wasn't expected to be restored until this morning, Paradis said.

Taxi-drivers relished the rush of unexpected fares, taking full advantage of a shut-down subway system.

"I was supposed to be sleeping today," said cabbie Rejean Mauzerolle, who quickly canceled his plans to take a day off when he saw masses of people waiting outside metro stations.

"Normally I don't work weekends because I have three kids. But people are looking to us for transportation."

The fire started about 7:45 a.m. in an underground tunnel on the northwest corner of St. Joseph Blvd. and St. Denis St.

Inside the tunnel were 12- and 25-kilovolt high-tension cables for the MUCTC, Hydro-Quebec,Videotron and AT&T, said Yves Boucher of the city's electric service commission.

Fire burned through the plastic and rubber that coated the cables, emitting toxic smoke. A series of small explosions occurred. As yellow smoke billowed out, the pressure was enough to blow the manhole lid high into the air. About 100 people were led from their homes to safety.

"I saw one manhole cover on the northeast corner of St. Joseph Blvd. and St. Denis St. blow up as high as the two-storey office building next to it," MUCTC security agent Pierre Cardinal said.

Cardinal was on duty at St. Joseph and St. Denis when the explosion occurred.

"I parked next to the manhole to call the fire department and MUCTC headquarters when I saw the smoke coming up. I got a bit of a shock when the explosion happened."

Cardinal said two adjacent manhole covers along St. Denis also blew off, but not as high as the one he was parked beside .

After Hydro-Quebec shut off power through the tunnel, firefighters flooded the manhole with water. They filled another nearby manhole with foam. Workers then began pumping out the water. An orange tube filtered out any remaining gases.

Power to 4,000 homes was lost immediately, said Hydro-Quebec spokesman Jean-Claude Lefebvre. By noon, 2,500 still had no electricity.

Forty apartments were expected to remain without power last night as repair work continued, Lefebvre said.

Yesterday's disruption was only the third time the entire subway system has been shut, Paradis said. The last time was during the 1998 ice storm.

Electrical fires as big as this one don't happen very often, Hydro-Quebec's Lefebvre said. "But statistically, no mechanisms are perfect."

The Montreal fire department is investigating the cause of the fire.

Boucher said an underground cable already damaged during a recent house fire in the area might have been the culprit. A power surge is another possibility, a fire official said.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 16, 2000

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