By Jermont Terry

CHICAGO (CBS) — Several downtown buildings were left without power Thursday after an underground electrical fire in a ComEd vault.

The Fire Department called a Level 1 Hazardous Materials situation for the electrical fire at LaSalle and Harrison streets near the LaSalle Metra station in the South Loop.

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Just after the hazmat response was called at 4 p.m., gray smoke was seen billowing into the street, and was so thick at times that the buildings nearby were not even visible.

“It was like a rumbling,” said Raven Geary, who lives near the scene of the fire. “It wasn’t like one big explosion.”

But what really caught Geary’s attention from her 11th-floor apartment in the South Loop was that thick and choking smoke that filled the air.

“I had the window open for some fresh air,” Geary said. “I started to smell a really bad smell.”

Fire crews had to come all the way from O’Hare International Airport with dry chemicals and foam to put out the fire. Specifically, fire crews used a dry chemical called Purple-K to flush into a manhole and put out the fire underground.

“We push the Purple-K in and it suffocates the fire,” said Deputy Fire Chief Annette Nance Holt. “There were a lot of eruptions. It pushed the man hole covers off.”

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The smoke had been tamped down significantly by 5 p.m. By 6 p.m., the fire was out, CBS 2’s Jermont Terry reported.

The Fire Department said there were no injuries, but power was out to several downtown buildings.

The fire knocked out power to nearly 3,000 ComEd customers, many of whom were sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
That is why ComEd brought in large generators, which were placed throughout the South Loop to restore power – because it was clear the fix underground would not be quick.

While most were worried about power, Geary’s building lost something more precious.

“After everything happened, I went to wash my hands,” Geary said. “I realize we didn’t have water.”

It is believed the explosion damaged the water pump or knocked the power off, leaving her in a horrible bind.

“It’s almost like the no water is worse, because it’s a pandemic, so we all want to wash our hands,” Geary said.

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The cause of the fire was not immediately learned. ComEd was also investigating.