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Manhole explosions force evacuations

Crews investigated at the scene of a manhole explosion on Hanover Street in the North End. Crews investigated at the scene of a manhole explosion on Hanover Street in the North End. (JOHN BOHN/GLOBE STAFF)

Panic raced through Boston's North End last night when three manholes exploded and sent flames skyward on busy Hanover Street.

No one was injured in the explosions, fire officials said, but a block of restaurants, shops, and apartments was evacuated.

Caroline Allen, NStar spokeswoman, said the explosions were sparked by an underground cable failure, which occurs from time to time. Thirteen buildings had their power cut temporarily as a precaution, she said.

The explosions occurred as diners and shoppers strolled through the neighborhood's narrow, winding streets and residents were returning to their homes.

Nuno Cabral, 24, a valet at the Bricco restaurant, was waiting to get out of work when the explosion sent him looking for cover.

"I started to walk away; then it exploded," said Cabral as he watched firefighters at the scene. "The flames were about 5 or 10 feet tall. It's one of those things where you don't really think; you just follow your instincts."

Firefighters started receiving calls about the explosions just before 5:30.

"We received calls for two manholes on fire, and when we got there, we found a third,' said District Fire Chief Edward Lorenz. "A company started to put water into one of the holes, and another started to evacuate stores and restaurants."

The neighborhood, which is popular with tourists looking for an Italian meal, is also home to a number of college students.

Dan Darcey and Jen Sheehy were washing dishes in their apartment and waiting for their dinner to defrost when they felt a rumble.

"I heard someone scream, and our apartment was buzzed," said Darcey, a 20-year-old Emerson college student. "Someone was telling us there was a fire in the building, and we should get out."

There was no fire in their Hanover Street building, but when they got outside, the street was filled with smoke.

"It was thick and dark," he said. "It was coming out of the manholes. The smoke was pretty alarming."

The scene was similar to an incident two years ago. In August 2005, five manhole fires caused the evacuation of three buildings on Prince and Hanover Streets, briefly cutting power to thousands and injuring a firefighter.

"You expect to be in a safe place and not have too many things like this to worry about," Darcey said.

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