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Gas explosion blacks out most of Cambridge

By Prabhat Mehta

A gas explosion in a manhole apparently caused Saturday evening's blackout, which left much of the Institute without power for over four hours. The blackout affected at least 30,000 of the 45,000 customers of the Cambridge Electric Light Co., whose lines were damaged by the explosion, according to The Boston Globe. Approximately two-thirds of Cambridge was left in darkness at one point.

On campus, the situation was exacerbated by a loss of emergency power in the central campus area. The largest campus generator, which would normally provide emergency power to, among other buildings, those surrounding Killian Court, was "off-line" on Saturday for repairs, Director of Physical Plant Paul F. Barrett said. As a result, many of those buildings serviced by the 1000 kW emergency generator were left without emergency power until Cambridge Electric gradually resumed normal service.

"As a matter of general Institute practice, there is emergency power for lights in exitways , selective elevator operation, telecommunications equipment, essential mechanical systems, health services, and for a limited number of bio-research activities such as freezers, etc.," Barrett stated.

A large temporary generator was started to provide emergency power to the central campus area, but since the temporary generator had to be brought on line manually, power to the affected areas could only be brought up slowly, according to Barrett.

Emergency power was eventually provided to the Central Utilities Plant and Building 39 before Cambridge Electric asked MIT for assistance in bringing normal power back on line. In response to CEL's request, Physical Plant diverted personnel from the temporary generator to help restore full power, Barrett noted. However, because the temporary generator was never fully started up, many buildings, including those containing the "Infinite Corridor" were left without emergency power for the duration of the blackout.

Although trash and other debris were thrown around in the central buildings during the blackout, Barrett said that he did not know of any instances of major vandalism or other such property damage. Campus Police also did not have any reports of criminal activity during the blackout, according to Deputy Police Chief James F. Mahoney Jr.

Twenty-four of the 26 smaller automatic generators which support the remaining Institute buildings came on automatically once outside power was lost. But "mechanical problems delayed the start-up of two [of the automatic] generators," according to Barrett. Because of the delayed start-up, problems with biology laboratory experiments were reported from Building E18, he noted. However, Barrett had not yet been informed of problems with experiments in any of the central campus buildings.

The gas explosion, which occurred at Cottage and River streets, took out power lines connecting Cambridge's two power plants: Kendall Square and Blackstone, according to The Globe. The power, which went out at approximately 5 pm, was restored gradually after over an hour of blackout. MIT was one of the last areas in Cambridge to receive power again, Barrett said. Some parts of campus did not have restored power until almost 11 pm.

Currently, Physical Plant is "assessing damage" in an effort to bring all systems back to normal operation. "It's very difficult to get power on line [after such a large blackout]," and once power is restored, time is required to bring everything to order again, Barrett said.