LEWISTON – On
Wednesday it was a mill fire. On Thursday, a gas leak in
Auburn.
 
On Friday afternoon,
it was a flying manhole cover and a rush of flame and smoke that brought traffic
to a halt right at the start of the commuter hour.
 
Fire officials said
it was a blown power line beneath the pavement that caused a manhole cover to
burst from the ground and sail at least 25 yards down Cedar
Street.
 
The immediate
recipient of the fluke explosion was Mary Katende, a Lewiston woman who happened
to be driving over the manhole at about 5 p.m. when the cover came up off the
ground.
 
“I just heard this
boom! I heard metal rolling around, and rust-colored smoke rose up,” Katende
said. “Talk about your life flashing before your eyes. I honestly thought I hit
the car in front of me, although there was a lot of distance between
us.”
 
Renee Laliberte was
in an even more precarious position. Driving behind Katende at the intersection
of Cedar and Lincoln streets, she witnessed the strange eruption and might have
been struck by the falling metal cover had it not been deflected by Katende’s
Lexus.
 
“It went up high
enough that it probably would have fallen right down on me,” said Laliberte, who
estimated the manhole cover rose up at least six feet in the air before crashing
back into the street. “I would have eaten it.”
 
Laliberte also saw
fire and smoke rise up beneath Katende’s car as the manhole cover blew. Both
drivers stopped at the side of the road, confused and startled by what had
happened.
 
On the other side of the intersection, Sue Ellsworth witnessed the incident from
a safer distance.
 
“Just as she drove
over it, the manhole cover popped up. There was a low flame that went across a
good portion of the whole road,” Ellsworth said. “It hit her vehicle and then
just flew up.”
 
After that,
Ellsworth spent a little time in the dark. That’s because the explosion was
followed by a thick plume of smoke that for a moment hid the entire
intersection from view.
 
“It was huge,”
Ellsworth said. “I couldn’t see anything for a while; it was that
dense.”
 
Firefighters quickly
closed down the intersection. It was 5 p.m., commuter hour at an extremely busy
passage between Lewiston and Auburn. There was a traffic clog right at the time
most people are heading home from work.
 
“It’s the second
time this week we’ve had a traffic problem like this,” said Lewiston firefighter
Michael Albert. “Third time if you count Auburn.”
 
Fire Capt. Tim Myers
guessed that an electrical problem beneath the street may have caused the
manhole cover to fly out of its hole. Minutes later, a Central Maine Power
worker stopped at the scene and confirmed the diagnosis. Repairs were under way
and expected to be completed by Friday night.
 
Before she left the
intersection, Laliberte thanked Katende for “taking the hit” and
possibly preventing the massive metal lid from sailing through her
windshield.
 
“If I helped stop
someone else from getting hit worse,” Katende said, “then I’m
glad.”


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