St. Petersburg, FL – The power is back on for 18 businesses in downtown St Pete, as Duke Energy crews continue investigating what caused an underground transformer on 3rd Street North at Central Avenue to catch fire and explode Monday afternoon.

Business workers and customers watched as smoke filled the air and then flames erupted. They felt the blast.
“Boom,” Hannah Revholz said in describing the scene.

“We ran. Manhole covers went flying and we had to take cover,” added Vanessa Herring.

The women recorded it all on their cell phones. They smelled and saw smoke just before six Monday night and called St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue.

They say within minutes of firefighters arriving, the transformer exploded.

“It was intense. My heart just started getting back to normal,” said Herring.

Flames shot into the air. The explosion sent a manhole cover flying several feet and rocked onlookers.

“When the ground started shaking I knew. You had like a minute warning. Literally the ground started shaking. It felt like an earthquake coming,” said Crystal Mohler.

Mohler, who manages Burrito Boarder on 3rd Street, says she rushed customers out of the restaurant which is directly across the street from the underground transformer. She says she knew what was coming because she saw the same thing on Sunday.

“Yesterday was a lot worse than today. Flames were higher yesterday. Today was just a lot more smoke,” Mohler said.

Duke Energy is working to figure out what caused the transformer to catch fire and explode. The company is also trying to determine if it’s related to Sunday’s fire in the same underground area. They say no one was in danger.

About 10 p.m., Duke Energy said that the customers would have power back about 9 a.m. Tuesday, and it is installing a temporary transformer.

When asked whether that thick greenish yellow smoke was toxic, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy explained it was likely the result of burning insulation and mineral oil.

“I can tell you now that the situation was safe for our customers. The fire department was immediately called and was able to put the fire out and they've indicated there was no public health hazard,” said Suzanne Grant.

Grant says the transformer that exploded is similar to the transformers you see in metal canisters on utility poles, but is much larger. It takes the high voltage electricity and transforms it into the voltage used by businesses and homeowners.

The fire and explosion left 18 customers without power. Many of them, including the owners of Lucky Dill, are unsure whether they will be able to reopen for business on Tuesday.