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Boston Weather: 35.0°F | Fair

Power Surge Blacks Out 13 East Side Buildings

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate Night Editor

At 6:04 p.m. on Monday evening, the number three generator at Commonwealth Electric's Kendall Square substation short-circuited and sent a power surge through MIT's electrical system, according to Roger Moore, superintendent of utilities for Physical Plant.

The power surge caused of the the load transfer switches to fail "catastrophically," Moore said. Many of the buildings on the east side of campus were plunged into darkness as both main and emergency lighting failed.

"Major, major damage" was caused to the switch, located in Building 6B (the small building in the courtyard between Buildings 4 and 6), Moore said. "At about the same time, breaker 13-301, our main breaker" opened, along with a tie breaker in Building 62 (the west parallel of East Campus), "as a result of the 6B problem," Moore said.

Following the failure of the switch, Buildings E10, E17, E18, E19, 6, 8, 14, 18, 50, 54, 56, 66, and 68 were without power, Moore said.

"The power went out at 6 p.m. or so," said East Campus resident Daniel P. Quintanilla '95. "All the lights went out, including emergency lights."

Students take outage `in stride'

Many students took advantage of the power outage and went out. "Royal East had a pretty good crowd last night," said Professor Kenneth A. Oye, East Campus house master. Most residents took the outage in stride, he said.

Traffic through the Infinite Corridor was disrupted by fire doors blocking the hallway. Students were routed around the affected area by walking through Killian Court or behind Building 10.

In a seemingly unrelated problem with another breaker, emergency power out of the Putnam substation was lost. The two problems are probably not related, Moore said, but "they haven't been fully investigated." The emergency system was down for eight minutes, according to Moore. But at East Campus, emergency lights were off until after 6:30 p.m., Oye said.

At 7:15 p.m., the main breaker was closed, restoring power to the main part of east campus.

$25,000 in damages

"The switch [in Building 6B] essentially exploded," Moore said, and had "to be completely rebuilt. Total cost for replacing the switch and associated costs for our people would probably run up to between $25,000 to $30,000." However, that price does not cover the cost of any research lost, he said.

The smoke detectors in Building 6B melted from the heat of the explosion, Moore said. "The smoke from that fire passed through some of our trenches and ductwork into the upper buildings," including Buildings 4 and 10, where a burning odor could be detected in the basement.

The melted smoke detectors in 6B and the detectors in the upper buildings triggered alarms which summoned the Cambridge Fire Department.

Physical plant workers "started rebuilding the switch Monday night at about 10 p.m.," Moore said. Yesterday evening around 6 p.m. the rebuilding was completed and lights began coming back on in Buildings 6 and 8, he said.

Pipes also set off alarms

An entirely unrelated incident Monday night caused "a lot of confusion," Moore said. "Just about 6 p.m. we started getting water flow alarms." At first Moore thought the alarms were caused by water from sprinklers.

Actually the weekend's cold weather froze many of the pipes in the building. With the warm weather on Monday, the pipes thawed out and triggered the alarms, a "common occurrence" in the winter that coincidentally occurred at the same time as the power outage, Moore said.

Dave DesRoches of Commonwealth Electric verified that the number three generator had been lost. All customers have had their power restored, according to DesRoches.