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Published: Thursday, 8/14/2003

Major power outage blanks Toledo area

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Suddenly, silence.

Phones stopped ringing. Air conditioners ground to a halt. Traffic lights went black, leaving startled motorists to fend for themselves. Computers snapped off.

For office workers, the day came to an abrupt early end. Others, like power company workers, and police and fire crews, were staring at what they feared would be a long, grueling night.

The lights flickered off about 4:15 p.m. yesterday in Toledo and all over southern Michigan and eastern Ohio leaving the entire region awash in confusion. People were left in the dark, in the heat, their information only coming from the few radio stations still operating. With so many people trying to use them, many cell phones weren't working.

To say people were frustrated was an understatement.

"The hottest day of the summer and this," said Len Cohen, 34, of Toledo. "The house is going to be an oven. I hope we get power soon. I don't know if I have a flashlight. By the time I get to a store, there won't be anything left."

The blackout stemmed from an explosion at a Commonwealth Edison plant in Niagara Falls, said Matt Butler, spokesman for Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. "As a fail safe along the way, power plants began to shut down including the nuclear power plants."

That included Fermi II Nuclear Plant near Monroe.

Utilities were scrambling to restore power last night but said the effort could take days as they checked for damage that may have been caused by a shock to the system. Most of downtown Toledo had power back around 9 p.m.

Detroit Edison said it likely would not restore power to most of its 2.1 million affected customers at least through the weekend. Detroit will not have its power today, and all businesses will be shut down, said Tony Early, CEO of DTE Energy, Detroit Edison's parent company. One-sixth of the nationwide power outage was centered in the Detroit system.

So many people had their air conditioners, fans, and other electric gadgets running that power companies feared it would drain the system again. Toledo Edison was urging its customers last night to conserve the use of air conditioners and electric appliances.

"If everyone turns their A.C. on, we're going to be back to where we were at 4:15 p.m.," said Chuck Krueger, a Toledo Edison spokesman.

Reaction ranged from humorous to fearful.

"The first thing that came to mind was, `I know I paid my electric bill,' '' said Malcolm "X'' Alexander, a resident of Riverside Apartments.

The first question many people asked each other when the power went out: Is this a terrorist attack?

"I'd like to know what caused it. I'd be glad to hear it was a faulty grid that didn't work and not something on a grander scale," said Springfield Township resident Nancy Radke.

James Johnson, 52, was in the worst possible place when the power went out - in an elevator at the four-story Vistula Heritage Apartments at Erie and Locust streets.

"I was going from the first floor to my apartment on the second floor. I had just checked the mail. The elevator just stopped," he said. "I just sat on the floor. I yelled a few times." Nobody heard.

"The air was getting to me. I was hot. That's what was getting to me," he said. After about 30 minutes, another resident decided to check the elevator and heard Mr. Johnson's yells. She got a maintenance man to pry open the doors.

The blackouts were so sporadic Toledo Edison couldn't say precisely what areas were without power, and what had been restored.

But the company said at one point or another, almost all of its 370,000 customers did not have electricity. Detroit Edison reported 2.1 million customers without power, including Detroit and areas all the way over to the thumb of Michigan, and the company had not restored much of the power last night. Consumers Energy, which provides service to Lenawee, Hillsdale, and Monroe counties in Michigan, said 100,000 of its 1.7 million customers were without power.

In some areas, the lights flickered but the power stayed on, or the power went out for as little as a minute. The outage hit the eastern part of Ohio, including Cleveland, first, then rolled quickly to the west, stopping in the Toledo area.

"It was a cascading effect when it got to Toledo and caused our systems to go down," Mr. Krueger said.

Detroit Edison's first priority was to restart its massive coal-fired coal plant in Monroe, the nation's sixth large coal plant.

In northwest Ohio, the first signs of the problem occurred in the Catawba Island area where an outage was reported at 3:15 p.m. Parts of Findlay also lost power about the same time.

At Cedar Point in Sandusky, the outage shut down some of the amusements stranding an unspecified number of riders. They were rescued without incidents.

Within 30 minutes, electricity was restored to much of suburban Toledo and many parts of the city. But the return of power was spotty. On Heatherdowns Boulevard, one side of the street had electricity while the other didn't.

In downtown Toledo, the outage struck when many government employees were leaving work. Power remained out in downtown well past the dinner hour. Streets and expressways leading out of the area were packed with commuters. Police reported about 90 percent of the city's traffic lights were down, causing chaos and numerous accidents at intersections.

While FirstEnergy and the other power companies struggled to get the system back up, businesses and schools were shutting down.

Power went out at 4:12 p.m. at the Farmer Jacks on Cherry Street. The store stayed open, but the outage was already costing them yesterday afternoon. An employee said the store had to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of deli products, including sandwich meats. As the outage continued, the store started talking about tossing frozen foods.

The University of Toledo did not have major problems and only had four buildings lost power. But Owens Community College closed on a busy registration day because there was no power - bad news for the procrastinators.

"Man, I took off work to register,'' said Jack Martin. "I'm never going to get classes. That's what I get for waiting until the last minute.''

Traffic crawled through intersections as police manned as many streets as they could.

Eleven state prisons and four youth detention centers in northern Ohio operated on generators during the blackout. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft was on vacation in Quebec, and he had not decided yesterday whether to return to Ohio yesterday.

Thankfully for the crowds at the LPGA tournament, play was uninterrupted. The Mud Hens postponed their game against the Norfolk Tides. They'll play a doubleheader today at 6 p.m.



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