Small blasts hit University of Oregon power system

By the Associated Press | January 8, 2013 | 2:32 AM EST

An electrical fire beneath the University Health, Counseling and Testing Center at the University of Oregon Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 closed the building for the day. The problem was being handled by maintenance workers and electricians according to Dana Mills the Director of the Health Center. Mills said the building still had smoke smell in it and the building was closed as a precautionary measure. Here, Vickie Skellcerf, front with mask, and Carol Martin, back with mask, exit the building after retrieving personal items. (AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Kevin Clark)

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — A series of explosions hit an underground utility system Monday at the University of Oregon, plunging several student dormitories and other buildings into darkness as crews scrambled to restore power.

Nobody was hurt, but about 3,000 students living on campus had no power in their rooms, university officials said. Campus police stepped up patrols, and the university gave away flashlights. Officials planned to bring in generators, but the task wasn't complete by evening.

University officials said electrical equipment overheated, causing circuits to ignite and melt.

The blasts were audible above the ground and from several hundred feet away. A video clip from the campus showed puffs of smoke coming from a manhole cover, and university officials said smoke also was visible inside the university health building, which was evacuated and closed for the rest of the day. A slight smell of burning rubber lingered outside for hours.

It could take days to permanently repair electrical circuits, university spokeswoman Julie Brown said.

Without electricity to power a television or charge a laptop, students were given additional entertainment options Monday, including a watch party for the college football championship game.

In a dormitory near the blast, pitch-black stairwells became obstacles for students trying to get to class, said Camila Rowland, a freshman majoring in psychology.

"We're using flashlights now," she said. Some cafeterias were closed, Rowland added, so those with power were unusually packed with students. And officials told residents to try to limit their use of bathroom facilities, she said.

The Register-Guard reported that students from two residence hall complexes trekked to other buildings Monday to use the Internet, charge their electronics or shower. Showers in the university's recreation center were made available until 11:30 p.m. for students in affected dorms.

Starting around 10 a.m., about five blasts issued from the tunnel system where power to university buildings is distributed, followed by a series of explosions over a half hour, said campus police spokesman Kelly McIver.

When the blasts started, two electrical workers were nearby in the tunnel system, but it's unknown whether they had anything to do with the explosions, McIver said.

"They exited the tunnel quickly and were not hurt," he said.

Law student Patrice Bishop-Foster said she was listening to music and heard a popping noise, and it took a few seconds to register that the noise wasn't part of the song. The lights flickered in the gym, she said.

The university has about 24,600 students. The outage affected the southwest portion of the 295-acre campus in Eugene.

"We are working as quickly as possible to safely restore all power to affected areas of campus," George Hecht, associate vice president for campus operations, said in a statement.