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Transformer fire, explosion cause evacuation of downtown hotel; no injuries reported
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Transformer fire, explosion cause evacuation of downtown hotel; no injuries reported

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Multiple explosions and a fire outside the downtown Omaha Doubletree Hotel prompted the hotel’s evacuation Monday night, but no injuries were reported and the building itself sustained no apparent damage.

The explosions and fire occurred in a self-contained, underground concrete electrical vault that sits under the sidewalk next to the building, said Acting Omaha Fire Battalion Chief Mickey McLaughlin.

McLaughlin said the explosions continued after the Fire Department arrived and there was a large amount of fire and smoke coming up through the grates in the sidewalk.

The building itself was protected from damage because its basement was walled off from the vault, he said. Fire crews were sent into the building at 1616 Dodge St. to make sure the fire hadn’t spread to the hotel, he said.

Once the Omaha Public Power District arrived and turned the power off, the fire burned itself out, McLaughlin said.

A spokeswoman for OPPD said redundancies in the downtown electrical system allowed power to continue functioning without any building outages occurring.

Crews were to go into the vault Monday night to begin repairs. The cause of the problem was not immediately available, she said.

The fire was first reported at 7:59 p.m., and by about 40 minutes later, firefighters were able to begin packing up.

“The building appears OK,” McLaughlin said. Guests were allowed back in and were able to spend the night.

The only lasting external impact of the fire, McLaughlin said, was some street and traffic light outages. McLaughlin said an official with the adjacent First National Bank building said no damage occurred to that structure.

Guests said they had a frightening race down the hotel stairwell.

Lauren Pruitt, 25, from Indianapolis, said she was on the 15th floor when the explosions occurred.

“It probably took a couple of minutes, but it felt like forever,” she said of her race down the stairs. “We were wasting no time.”

Andrew Lovato-Needham, 18, from Phoenix, said he, his dad and his mom were in their eighth-floor room when the explosion occurred.

“We heard an explosion that rocked the building a little bit and we freaked out,” he said. “We looked out the window and saw smoke coming from the sewer vents right below us, and we decided we needed to get out as fast as possible.”

Lovato-Needham said the building started to shake a little bit and the lights were flickering as they went down the steps. The closer they got to the lobby the stronger the smell of smoke became, he said.

After evacuating, he and other guests stood outside and watched the multiple firetrucks and emergency officials at the scene. Access to the north side of the Doubletree was blocked off.

Stay with Omaha.com for more on this developing story.

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Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Email: nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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