Power Failure Causes Havoc Downtown

Power Problems
By Petula Dvorak and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 14, 2008

A single switch in a Pepco substation failed yesterday morning, cutting power to the heart of the nation's capital, including the White House and downtown offices. The outage shut down Metro stations, threw rush-hour traffic into a state of bedlam and highlighted how vulnerable the city can be.

"It was like each man for himself. Trucks were pulling out in front of buses; people were on the street. It was like a Third World country," said David Zaidain, 34, a city planner who was stunned by the level of anarchy he encountered while walking to work along Ninth Street NW. "We're living under this veil of potential terror, and this is how the city responds to something like this?"

During the outage, which began about 7:30 a.m. and lasted nearly three hours, the chaos was exacerbated when two fires ignited on the tracks along Metro's Red Line, causing further delays and breakdowns in Metro cars packed with sweaty, frustrated commuters. Metro officials said the Pepco failure resulted in a surge in Metro's power grid, which caused two stud bolts to fail, triggering the fires.

Ambulances and police cars zigzagged across town. Three pedestrians were struck by cars along the dozens of city blocks that had no traffic signals, and nine people were treated by paramedics after scaling the steep Metro escalators. Intersections gridlocked as tempers flared and horns blared, and many people complained over the din about a lack of police officers and traffic personnel to help unravel the mess.

As systems broke down one by one and phone trees lighted up across the city, public officials, power company executives and homeland security agents raced to dispel the worst fear. "This was not terrorist-related," D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said.

But it did reveal the frailty of infrastructure in the nation's capital.

"I'm troubled by about how much of a power outage there was, but we've got to bear some of the responsibility and blame, too," Fenty said. "There was not enough communication."

Pepco officials said they communicated with city and federal officials within minutes of learning of the switch failure, which caused a loud boom heard by residents in Chinatown.

The substation that powers most of the downtown grid with four giant circuits is located there. It was already compromised, running on just three circuits after officials closed one down Thursday night when a cooling pump problem was suspected, said Michael Sullivan, Pepco's senior vice president for operations.

When one of the three switches leading to a circuit failed, the entire substation shut down automatically, leaving about 12,000 customers in Northwest Washington without power in an area bounded by U and F streets and 17th and Third streets, he said. In power company parlance, one customer can be an entire office building, meaning thousands of people were affected.

Power company technicians are trying to learn what caused the switch to blow, an investigation that could take weeks, Sullivan said.

Fenty said he was concerned that such a widespread blackout could happen because of a systemic problem.

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