Insulation failure
probably caused
downtown fire

The polyuethylene covering on an
underground line may have failed

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Insulation failure on an underground low-voltage power line is suspected as the cause of Monday's fire that closed 25 downtown businesses for a day.

Chuck Freedman, Hawaiian Electric Co. spokesman, said today that there are numerous reasons why the 1/8-inch polyethylene jacket around the 1-inch power line may have failed.

These include the electric load on the line at the time of the mishap, the configuration of the line, exposure to water or salt, rat or termite damage and the age of the line.

Freedman said HECO officials have ruled out insulation damage by termites or rats.

He said HECO has increased inspecting and testing of underground wiring, a process that was already under way when Monday's fire broke out below the roadway near 125 Merchant St.

"These changes stem from a study completed in June," Freedman said.

That study was prompted by an Oct. 4 fire after a manhole explosion on Richards Street left downtown without power for hours.

Freedman said one result of the underground study was the replacement of solid manhole covers with vented covers to let air pressure escape.

The state's consumer advocate, Chuck Totto, said the Public Utilities Commission will ask HECO why its underground downtown grid has remained vulnerable to fires.

Monday's fire caused smoke to pour out of two manhole covers on Merchant Street between Bishop Street and Fort Street Mall.

Outage causes problems
for some firms

By Rod Ohira

There's a large electrical box located on the Merchant Street side of the wall in the basement office of MCS Videoworks.

Until Monday afternoon's power outage, employees thought the box was for the building.

"If I was in there editing and it exploded, I'd be dead," Wendell Mattos of MCS Videoworks said of the Hawaii Electric Co. cable box he saw "vibrating" Monday when he went to check on smoke coming out of the office.

"If I knew what that box was, I'd have been out of there right away," Mattos added.

The basement of 125 Merchant St. is below the roadway and the box contains cables from the underground electrical vault where Monday's fire was centered. Heco shut off power to 25 downtown buildings to put out the fire and replace damaged cables.

It took 171/2 hours to restore power to all locations except two -- 125 Merchant St. and the adjacent Stagenwald building. Power finally was restored there at 6:12 p.m. yesterday, said Heco spokesman Fred Kobashikawa.

Nine businesses at 125 Merchant St., including MCS Videoworks, and eight others in the Stagenwald building were closed yesterday because of the outage.

Mattos believes Heco needs to resolve its underground problems.

"Instead of putting a Band-Aid on it, they should be checking out the whole system and take preventive action," Mattos said. "I'm glad they put manhole covers with slits in them so they don't go flying around.

"But it seems like they're only treating public safety above ground and not taking care of the actual problem," he added.

MCS Videoworks had other outage-related problems.

MCS producer/director Edward McLaurin said the building's pumps failed during the outage. "Water from the building was coming out of the toilet. There was about 2 inches on the floor. I'm just hoping we don't have any water damage to some very expensive equipment," he said, pointing to a new editing computer valued at $20,000.

MCS also had to cancel a video shoot yesterday and may have trouble meeting some production deadlines because of the outage, McLaurin said. "In terms of productivity, we've lost two days. I'm planning to call Heco and pursue a claim."

Professional Image Inc., a copying company, and Young Laundry and Dry Cleaning are among the businesses at 125 Merchant St. frustrated by the delay yesterday.

"I'm not a happy camper," said Helen Godwin, owner of Professional Image. "We've lost a lot of walk-in business and people are not going to walk to our other downtown locations, they're just going to our competitors. "It's very frustrating"

Godwin estimated her two-day losses at more than $5,000. "They told us we'd be up and running at 10 a.m., then noon, then 3 p.m., and then 4:30 p.m. I understand accidents happen, but it's surprising to me how long it's taking to get things corrected."

Manager Gwen Underwood of Young Laundry also criticized the delay. "We're disappointed for our customers since we still have clothes inside the store that were to picked up and also for our employees, who we've had to keep on hold. I'm not sure Heco has resolved all the problems."

Kobashikawa did not know how many damage claims have been filed but said Heco deals with them on a case-by-case basis.

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