From blown out windows to walls covered in soot and chairs soaked through, John Neate is still assessing the damage after a terrifying Friday evening for staff at his downtown Vancouver JJ Bean café.
“Anybody walking by would have been, sadly, incinerated,” the JJ Bean owner and CEO told Global News Monday.
Around 6 p.m. on Feb. 24, a BC Hydro electrical vault that, unbeknownst to Neate, was directly underneath his sidewalk patio on Burrard Street, suddenly exploded into flames.
Dashcam video posted to the Chinese platform Xiaohongshu shows the moment the fireball erupted and shot up to four storeys high, followed by an explosion.
“Our crews were responding to multiple calls of explosions and trapped people and injured people as well,” Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Capt. Matthew Trudeau said.
Two people suffered lacerations and facial burns while those in nearby buildings were forced to flee, including Neate’s employees.
“It is very traumatic, this is our number one location on a per-hour basis” said Neate, who is now facing unexpected repairs to one of his most popular locations.
“This hurts a lot.”
BC Hydro probing cause of electrical vault fire in downtown Vancouver
The coffee shop in the historic Marine building is expected to be closed for up to three months for a complicated heritage restoration that Neate estimates could cost well over $200,000.
Next door, the Donnelly Group’s Brass Fish Tavern was able to open Monday after staff and customers safely evacuated the building Friday.
“Everyone was anxious as you’d expect,” said Jeff Donnelly, who was at Brass Fish when the incident unfolded.
“With the street looking like a war zone, we’ve obviously taken a hit.”
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said BC Hydro has taken the lead on the investigation into why the underground electrical vault exploded.
“For any area of specialization we’ll hand it off to that group who has that knowledge and that expertise and that ownership over that area,” Trudeau said.
BC Hydro told Global News Monday that determining the cause of the blast will take time, and the piece of equipment at the centre of the incident passed a routine inspection last year.
There are a “handful” of underground electrical vaults in downtown Vancouver, according to BC Hydro. When asked if the public should be concerned about walking over them, the provincial Crown corporation stressed safety is its top priority.
2 hurt in explosion and underground electrical vault fire in Vancouver
“This was a very rare situation with our equipment,” BC Hydro spokesperson Kyle Donaldson said.
“We want to make sure the public is aware that our infrastructure is safe, our equipment is safe, and it’s monitored and inspected throughout the year.”
Neate said he hopes the incident sparks change.
“Hopefully they’re going to make these things safer so that if there is a malfunction, there isn’t going to be an explosion,” he said.
While Neate said he can temporarily relocate some of his employees to the other 23 JJ Bean locations, he does not have business interruption insurance and is hoping BC Hydro will offer compensation so he can take care of all of his staff during the restoration.
“Hopefully they’ll bypass all their fancy lawyers and just reach out and say we’ve got you covered,” he said.
Asked if the Crown corporation would provide financial help to affected businesses, Donaldson said BC Hydro apologizes to the businesses that were impacted by Friday’s incident, and is committed to working with business owners through its claims process.
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