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Human error behind Southern California power outage
Sacramento Bee


September 13, 2005

LOS ANGELES - A maintenance mistake knocked out power to about half the city Monday, snarling traffic, trapping people in elevators and rattling nerves in a city already on edge because of a reported terrorist threat.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials said about 2 million customers lost power when the municipal utility's employees accidentally connected the wrong wires during maintenance work at a receiving station.

The accident triggered outages in neighborhoods from the San Fernando Valley to the southernmost edge of the city beginning at 12:37 p.m. Monday.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the municipal utility had restored power to about 90 percent of its customers within two hours. He said city crews took several more hours to reset the traffic signals knocked out of service by the outage.

Appearing at a gathering to reassure Jewish leaders of the city's plans to protect Jewish sites during the upcoming holy days, the mayor said city officials had a "heightened sense of concern" because the blackout hit one day after the four-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

He also noted that a suspected al Qaeda videotape surfaced on Sunday in which a man identified Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia as the next likely terrorist attacks.

"Like every other city, Los Angeles experiences power outages from time to time," the mayor said. "The fact that this one happened today on the heels of Sept. 11th and on the nonspecific threat reported yesterday created a heightened sense of concern. I am here to assure you our city is equipped to handle these situations."

The Los Angeles Police Department declared a tactical alert after Monday's outage, an order that requires police officers remain on the job after their shifts end. Officer Sara Faden said the department lifted the alert around 3 p.m. because most power had been restored.

In downtown Los Angeles, some workers initially fretted that terrorists were behind the widespread blackout.

"In the age we live in . . . there's just a different kind of consciousness," Danny Feingold said.

Feingold said he and his co-workers at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy gathered around a transistor radio to keep informed and soon realized human error caused the outage.

"So we held a meeting with a notebook instead of a laptop," he said.

Jim Wells, Los Angeles City Fire Department spokesman, said two refinery workers suffered respiratory problems when a Wilmington refinery burned off excess fuel that built up during the outage. He said both workers were transported to nearby hospitals in "good condition."

The fire department evacuated a nearby college and told residents living near the Conoco Phillips refinery to remain in their homes for about 45 minutes to avoid the potentially toxic smoke from the refinery.

"I am sure there was some sort of hazardous material released," Wells said.

Emergency services, the police department, hospitals, the city's transit systems and local airports affected by the outage turned to emergency power and reported either no disruption or only minor disruptions in their services.

Traffic backed up where traffic signals stopped functioning, and some workers were briefly trapped in elevators. But Wells said most high-rise buildings have back-up generators to power elevators in an outage.

Around the city, most residents reported only minor inconveniences.

In Studio City in the San Fernando Valley, Julie Buckner was briefly panicked because she couldn't make contact via cell phone with any of the other mothers who had taken her son to lunch.

"It made me feel out of control," the public relations executive said. "So I got in my car and drove to their houses to find him. By the time I got to the third house, the power had been restored."

She said her son was fine. But Buckner and others said the power failure reminded them of the need to prepare for a loss of electricity and other services in the case of an earthquake or other disaster.

Susan Fogel, a Van Nuys lawyer whose home was rocked by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, said she dug out her "earthquake phone," an old-fashioned Princess model that doesn't require electricity to operate.

"I was worried when it took so long (for the power to be restored)," she said. "But I don't mind little interruptions. It's like they make you sit down for a minute and think."


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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