George Brown had just returned to his Fairfax home after a Little League baseball game with his son and was settling into an easy chair to catch the end of the U.S. Open golf tournament on television when the storm struck Sunday afternoon.
Like those of thousands of Washington-area residents, Geoge Brown's lights flickered and went out. And, like thousands of others, Brown called his power company -- in this case the Virginia Electric and Power Co. -- to find out what was wrong.
But unlike his neighbors, brown -- whose job it is to get the power restored as operations superintendent of Vepcos's Arlington/Alexandria District -- did not wait out the storm by candlelight. Within minutes after calling Vepco, he was in his car and on his way to work at the power company's division headquarters in Alexandria.
Clad in the red plaid Bermuda shorts, blue tennis shoes and red T-shirt he had worn to his son's baseball game, Brown was still at Vepco yesterday afternoon. There he was to stay until all the lights were on again.
Telephone calls from blacked-out customers flooded into George Brown's command center at the rate of 700 an hour -- and this is just one of eight Northern Virginia command centers of Vepco. The Potomac Electric Power Co., serving D.C. and Maryland, has its own command system.
Although Brown's command center has computers and other sophisticated electronic gear, the Vepco personnel depend largely on incoming telephone calls to tell them where their biggest problems are.
About 15 percent of the Arlington/Alexandria district's circuit breakers, for example, are monitored on a computer. For information about the rest, Vepco must rely on the phone calls.
During the Crisis, Vepco workers stood around big tables sorting cards with the names and information from people who called in. Sorted into groups, the cards showed where to focus repair activity.
During its half hour of fury, the storm knocked out power to more than 180,000 houses, apartments and businesses throughout the Washington area.
Utilities scrambled to repair big feeder cables and were able to restore service quickly to most customers connected to them. By midnight last night, however, about 4,500 homes remained without power in Maryland and the District, and about 600 in Northern Virginia.
For Brown, it was just another storm, just another 24-hour day's work.
"We've seen worse," he said.
Brown was among the first of Vepco's Northern Virginia employes to respond to Sunday's massive power failure. Within a few hours, upwards of 200 were working under his command to bring lights back to 60,000 Arlington and Alexandria homes.
Many took their places at the phones, recording complaints and what would become vital information. In another area of the command center, Brown's subordinants dispatched dozens of repair crews.
The radios crackled with reports of blown fuses and burnt wires.
On the computer that monitors some of the area's circuit breakers, the red danger lights popped up in profusion. At the center's bank of 21 phones, the reports of power failures poured in.
"It took me about three minutes," said Brown, "to realize we needed more help."
Brown's call for assistance went to the division duty officer on the third floor who oversees operations in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and portions of other Northern Virginia counties. The message was relayed to Vepco headquarters in Richmond. Vince Sutphin, division construction supervisor, began recruiting private contractors to supplement the cleanup and repair effort.
By the time the control center's load of hamburgers arrived from Lum's, trucks were on their way from as far as Harrisonburg, Va. Others carrying men, telephone poles and cables formed a caravan from Richmond.
Brown, Sutphin and their repair crews worked through the night. Reports of finished repairs came in over the radio as they did, cards were sent back to the phones to confirm with customers that power had been restored.
Louis Laughon, a 25-year veteran who supervises the message tracking operation, was another who stayed the night. He had been barbecuing hamburgers when the storm struck.
"This is nothing," Laughon said. "Once you get the major outages, then the fun really begins."
Starting Sunday night, chain saws screamed through the darkness. Greg Creasy, who reported Monday morning to Brown smeared with sweat and grime, said that 80-foot oaks had fallen in McLean. In one place, falling trees took down three spans of wire, leaving 3,000 customers without power.
While power was restored quickly to some, extensive damage wrought by falling timber required hours to repair, sometimes to bring power to only a few houses.
"You send a crew out to do three houses and it can take three hours," said Brantley Pryor, staff administrator. "You can imagine how long it takes to do the whole damn thing."
On Aberdeen Street in Bailey's Crossroads, for instance, a telephone pole snapped in half, the lines resting precariously on a few tree limbs in a heavily wooded ravine. The lines were in back of the houses, at the bottom of a steep hill.
At noon yesterday, a crew of seven workers was planting a new pole. It had been able to stand it on end only by rigging the damaged one with pulleys and bringing a winch cable from a truck on the street.
The lines threatened to fall any minute. Pryor advised keeping a distance.
While the storm resulted in a day's inconvenience to thousands of Virginia residents it proved a bonanza to hundreds of Vepco workers.
"They'd go all day if you let them go," Pryor said. "But when a man's tired, he's liable to make a mistake. And when you're working with voltage, a mistake can be fatal."
Contracts required that Vepco management allow eight hours rest between 16-hour shifts. The duration of the repairs, and the aid of out-of-town crews, presented a problem of a different kind.
Where do you put them when the shift is over?
Vepco reserved 45 motel rooms.
Vepco's Arlington-Alexandria district is one of eight in the company's northern Virginia division, which stretches west of Leesburg and south of Fredericksburg. The district office, which is headed by Hilton B. Peel, serves 107,000 of Vepco's 1.4 million customers.
Like his operations chief Brown, Peel was relaxing Sunday afternoon when the storm hit. He was playing volleyball, and when he felt the first drop of rain, he immediately went home to telephone the office.
By the time Peel got home, the storm was raging. "It's a real bad one," he told the man at the office, Harry C. Erwin.
Erwin, a 29-year Vepco veteran, was on duty at the time with only two telephone operators and two line crewmen in the field. By the time Peel called at about 5 p.m., Erwin had already scrambled to get more telephone operators and linemen on the way to work.
Erwin has dealt wirh many such storms, but this one surprised him for the speed with which it arrived here.
"The storm hit Leesburg about 15 minute before it hit us," he said "Usually it takes 30 to 45 minutes to get here. This one was awful fast."