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The Day the Lights Went Out at Berkeley
Major Electrical Disaster Averted by Quick Action of Physical Plant Employees

by Sunny Merik, Public Affairs
posted June 10, 1998

If your workday came to a sudden stop Tuesday, May 19 because your computer, lights, cash register or other electronic equipment died, you were not alone. The entire central campus, including more than 90 buildings, lost electricity for more than three hours that afternoon, according to Bob Newell, utilities manager.

The shutdown averted a possible electrical disaster at the Grizzly Peak substation. Early that morning, a group of newly hired electricians on campus orientation had noticed a seriously sagging electrically charged copper pipe. The pipe – one of three busbars that weigh 1,000 pounds and conduct 12,000 volts each to campus transformers – had lost its support and was sagging dangerously close to another charged busbar. If the two pipes had touched, there would have been a devastating explosion, Newell said.

“We all knew immediately that we had serious problems on our hands,” said Johnny Torrez, director of Physical Plant. “We had to cut off power to the Grizzly Peak transformers as soon as possible.”

A crew of six worked to transfer electrical load to a co-generation plant designed as a backup power station for the campus. But when electricity was transferred about noon, the co-generation plant failed. A second transfer attempt also failed.

“We had to keep power out of the Grizzly Peak substation. Every minute that passed with that sagging busbar in danger of falling was just too hazardous, so we simply did not try again,” Newell said. “We thought we could repair Grizzly Peak and get it back on line more quickly than trying a third time to transfer the power.” A crew of off-campus experts, complete with cherry picker-type equipment, carefully hoisted the busbar back into proper position, replaced the broken supports, checked out the rest of the substation equipment, and had the place up and running by 5:15 p.m.

Although the power was off for only about three and a half hours, the blackout affected everything from final exams (which were in progress) to email.

“Somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 email accounts were affected by the outage,” said Jerry Smith, director of Workstation Support Services.

Felix Solomon, Faculty Club director, said he canceled all lunches and dinner. “It was hard working in the dark,” he said. However, the club did serve two scheduled cheese and wine receptions.

Student meals presented a similar challenge. Arvell Howell, assistant director of dining services, said barbeque grills were set up and 2,000 meals of hamburgers, hot-dogs, veggieburgers, chicken and polish sausage were served. “We also had a salad and fruit bar,” Howell said. “We used paper plates and plastic wear.”

Mary Remy, manager of the Women’s Faculty Club, said, “We served lunch by candlelight.” With nearly 100 meals ordered, the Women’s Faculty Club emphasized its salad bar and other dishes that did not require cooking.

“Our telephones were also out. And we couldn’t give cash register receipts, which upset some patrons,” Remy said.

One of the club’s staff members was caught in an elevator. “We pried open the doors enough with a crowbar to slip her a flashlight so she wouldn’t have to be in total darkness,” said Remy.

Bob Jacobs, director of housing facilities, said, “Since we didn’t know how long the power would be off, we brought in generators and lights to establish study centers for the students.”

Scores of other adjustments were made throughout campus, some final exams were moved to Saturday night, and faculty, staff and students took necessary steps to keep the university functioning.

The May 19 blackout was the largest campus power outage in recent history. It can best be remembered for the explosion it prevented.

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