What began as a drive to a Morristown ice cream shop ended in horror for Judy Stein-Loewenthal and her two boys on the afternoon of Aug. 31.
Judy, 41, was on James Street waiting for the light to change. Zachary, 7, sat behind her in the Sienna minivan, and Jake, 5, was next to him.
They never made it to the Creamery.
“It was a beautiful day, relaxed and serene…my window was open, my arm was on the windowsill. Then, BOOM!” Judy said, shortly before testifying in Trenton on Wednesday before the state Board of Public Utilities about the latest in a series of manhole fires and explosions that have plagued Morristown for years.
She described an experience that left her burned, anxious, and feeling lucky to be alive.
Inches from her arm, a manhole cover blasted in the air and her arm was burned by a red flame that shot high above the minivan. The blast cracked her windshield and melted paint off her sideview mirror and a rear door handle. The boys thought a car had exploded in front of them.
“We could have died. If my car was over that manhole…,” said Judy, a Morris Township resident who is trained as a social worker. “I believe in my heart that someone will die if this is not properly addressed.”
The BPU voted 4-0 on Wednesday to require Jersey Central Power & Light to hire a “special reliability master” approved by the board, and reporting to the board, to evaluate the design, reliability and safety maintenance of Morristown’s underground electrical network.
“We will comply and fully cooperate with the board’s decision,” said JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano.
In the seconds after the blast, Judy reacted instinctively.
“I realized right away I needed to get away from there quickly. I went right on South Street. Fortunately, there was no traffic. I pulled into King’s. People came out. The buildings had shook,” she recounted.
People from King’s brought ice for her arm, and cookies for her children. A Morristown police detective was there immediately. Judy called a family friend to take her children, who were shaken up.
“I was totally in shock. It was a surreal experience,” Judy said.
She was taken to Morristown Medical Center; later that evening she went to the emergency room at St. Barnabas Medical Center.
Judy was diagnosed with second-degree burns on her left arm that may take 18 months to heal. The skin blistered and peeled and she now wears a compression shirt to minimize further scarring. She has been told that her arm may be permanently discolored.
The Sharretts family of Morristown also was affected by the blast. The hair was singed on the arm of Bret Sharretts as he was turning onto James Street with his family in their S.U.V. He did not require medical treatment.
Earlier in the summer, an underground vault in front of Walgreen’s caught fire and billowed thick black smoke through the sidewalk. A massive explosion at the Morristown & Township Library in May 2010 was preceded by a smoking manhole. That blast remains unsolved; both JCP&L and Public Service Electric & Gas have denied responsibility for that incident.
JCP&L said there was no connection between the Aug. 31 incident and its efforts to restore power to Morristown in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. Much of Morristown and Morris Township lost power for days when floodwaters knocked out a substation on Ridgedale Avenue.
Officials of the BPU met with Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.) after the latest manhole explosion. BPU President Lee Solomon, citing “numerous incidents” stretching back five to 10 years, called for a “thorough investigation…by a qualified engineering firm” into the design, operation and maintenance of JCP&L’s Morristown network.
Jerome May, director of the BPU’s division of energy, said he wants JCP&L to have a consultant ready for the board’s consideration at its Oct. 13 meeting.
Morristown Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman attended the BPU meeting and praised the board for launching an investigation with the special reliability master.
“The 100,000 people who live in, work in, dine in or drive through Morristown every day should never have to worry about the smell of a gas leak or about walking on a manhole cover,” the councilwoman said.
Rebecca was joined at the meeting by Michael Fabrizio and Robert Goldsmith from the Morristown Partnership, a business organization. The three of them pressed the BPU to appoint the special master.
“This affects the business community,” Michael said.
Judy expressed concern about Morristown’s recurring manhole problems.
“This has been going on in Morristown since the ’90s,” she said. “It seems like it’s been neglected. People didn’t care until someone got hurt.”
She said her experience made for some lively “how I spent my summer vacation” stories when her boys went back to school.
“It was like, ‘I went on vacation here…and I saw an explosion,'” she related. It does not strike her as amusing.
“My children witnessed what no child should have to see, on a serene day going out for ice cream.”