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UPDATE (1:20PM): City Hall has re-opened, but non-emergency services in the Civic Square building, including the municipal court, will be closed for the day. No injuries were reported.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–Just a few hours into the work week, the city and county government were brought to a halt by an exploding transformer near the historic US Post Office in downtown.
Witnesses reported hearing an explosion prior to the fire, which appears to have been extinguished by city firefighters as of 12:30pm.
But the incident caused considerable chaos, including power outages and the evacuation of police headquarters at 25 Kirkpatrick Street.
The five-story building that holds the county courthouse and administration building was also evacuated shortly after 11am, and several other buildings on Bayard Street were also evacuated.
An official statement from the county government indicated that the county building “was evacuated about 11:30 a.m. in an abundance of caution.”
“No employees were injured. No damage to the County Building was sustained,” reads the statement. “County Offices were reopened at 12:05 p.m.”
Court personnel were telling evacuees to return at 1:30pm.
However, it’s unclear when the downtown post office will be able to re-open. One side of the building is covered with chemicals used to extinguish the blaze.
“The building will have to be examined and declared safe before we will be able to go back in,” US Postal Service operations manager Michael Rizzolo told NJ.com’s Sue Epstein.
Rizzolo told the newspaper that post office box clients would be temporarily moved to the post office building at the intersection of Handy Street and Railroad Avenue.
The street is currently closed between George Street and Joyce Kilmer Avenue North, according to the city government. The evacuations left hundreds of people gathering outdoors along Paterson Street, with some seeking shelter under the abandoned Ferren Mall parking garage.
Police officers warned one another to stay away from “manholes,” according to police radio transmissions. Law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, and at least one vehicle from PSE&G were on scene.
As of 12:45pm, sworn New Brunswick police officers were allowed back into their headquarters, but civilian employees were only allowed to gather their belongings before leaving.
The incident is reminiscent of a 2010 explosion that sent a manhole cover airborne near the intersection of George and Bayard Streets. Because that incident occurred over the weekend, it caused considerably less chaos.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.