Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Another Explosion Downtown

At about 4:08 this afternoon, I was lecturing about the French Rococo. I had just finished talking about Fragonard's The Swing, commenting on the frivolity of the lifestyle depicted, and I was just about to change to the next slide when the power went out.

After a moment, the emergency lights switched on, but there were no alarms or anything else to indicate the cause of the problem. I realized that we don't have an emergency procedure plan. Was I supposed to evacuate my students? If so, where were we supposed to go-to the street, the courtyard, the garage?

I told my students to sit tight while I went to investigate. In the hallway were two other faculty members and one of the custodians. None knew what was going on. We looked out the window and saw a large group of students looking down the street. I walked down the hallway to look out that window. There were several men wearing bright yellow safety vests, the grates to the utilities below the sidewalk were open, and there was a faint wisp of black smoke in the air just above.

I went back to my classroom and told my students what I had seen, and that I suspected the power grid blew up again. The last time it blew up (at least, I think it was the last time... maybe there have been more explosions since), a car was destroyed and manhole covers flew 30 feet in the air. At that point in time, CL&P was doing their best to get out of fixing the power grid. They recently announced that the grid needed to be replaced and that they would do so soon.

I don't know if it was the power grid blowing up again. There was an explosion, as I learned later from people who were at that end of the building, but it looked to me like there was work being done on the utilities at the time. Unfortunately, one person was seriously injured, possibly killed. (Update: news reports confirmed what I heard from students, that one of the CL&P contract workers was killed. His name was Elias Anchundia, he lived on Long Island, and some reports said that he had a wife and children. Of course, what I heard from students at the time was along the lines of "I saw the dead guy.")

About fifteen minutes after the explosion, the school put the intercom system to work telling everyone to evacuate the building through the parking garage. As the line of cars snaked its way out to the street (using the wrong side of the drive, because the exit gate was stuck in the down position), a faculty member tried driving into campus and was told to turn around by one of the campus police (who then got into the middle of the road to direct the nightmare traffic jam.

This photo of the explosion site was taken at 4:23, just as the school began evacuating.

UPDATE 2/23: It's funny how there are always conflicting reports. Today's paper says that the body of the man who was killed stayed at East Main Street for eight hours (which seems very improbable to me; there was at least one ambulance present by 4:23--wouldn't they have taken him to the hospital morgue right away?), but earlier reports said he was rushed to St. Mary's, where he was pronounced dead. Also today, it has been reported that the transformer blew up because it was faulty, not because of anything the workers did to it. CL&P still maintains that it is unrelated to the other explosions because it is not on the same grid. In my opinion, it is absolutely related. Transformers aren't supposed to randomly explode, and Waterbury has suffered an unusual number of serious explosions over the past year or so. The last time it happened, I was really upset by CL&P's seemingly uncaring attitude. An explosion that could destroy a car and send manhole covers 30 feet in the air is serious. It's very fortunate no one was killed in that explosion. This time someone was killed. How do we know there won't be more injuries and fatalities in the future?

Meanwhile, Blumenthal is pursuing legal action against CL&P. Waterbury's not the only city having this problem. I imagine the family of the man who was killed will be looking at legal action as well.

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