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Student Center Power Shut Off for 4 Hours

By Sarah Y. Keightley
Editor in Chief

The Student Center was evacuated Wednesday evening after a grease fire in Networks set off the sprinkler system and water flooded the transformer room in the basement, said Phillip J. Walsh, director of the Campus Activities Complex.

The power was shut off, and the building was closed for about four hours, Walsh said. No one was injured.

Though the original problem was the fire, the more serious problem was the water from the sprinkler, which started to drip down to the electric transformer room in the basement, Walsh said. The transformer carries 13,400 volts, he said.

The power outage also disrupted access to the Athena Computing Environment. About half of the student lockers were unavailable because they are stored on computers in the Student Center, according to Thomas J. Coppeto of Information Systems.

Around 5:15 p.m. a grill-oven in Networks ignited, Walsh said. The fire was under control almost immediately because the heat from the fire activated a sprinkler and the Networks employees used fire extinguishers, Walsh said.

Smoke spread through the first floor, Walsh said. But the damage was limited to the grill and the area immediately above it, which included a duct and ceiling tiles, he said.

Water in basement

This situation was taken care of in 45 to 60 minutes, and the fire department gave the initial all-clear to reopen the building, Walsh said. Then it was discovered that water was leaking into the basement.

"The city inspector who was here on site and the electric company told us we needed to go to emergency shutdown," Walsh said. The fire department was called back to be on hand, as well as the Physical Plant crew that deals with high power situations. "It could have been a very dangerous situation," Walsh said.

The transformer room, which is beneath Networks, is not vulnerable because of a building flaw, Walsh said. Rather, it was just an "unfortunate set of circumstances."

"Everyone did a terrific job of responding" to the situation, Walsh said.

Scheduled and emergency power outages often occur, but this has never happened before, Walsh said.

The building returned to mostly-normal operations soon after it was re-opened at 9:15 p.m. "There was contact with personnel from Athena to get back on-line," Walsh said. The 24-hour Coffee House opened around 10 p.m., and LaVerdes stayed open late in response to the special circumstances, Walsh said.

Frank LaVerde, who owns LaVerde's, said that when he was outside the Student Center he overheard several students saying that they wanted to buy food. To respond to this need, LaVerde's was open until 2:30 a.m. Wednesday night.

Networks will re-open today at 11 a.m.

Athena servers shut down

In addition to the fifth floor Athena cluster, the Student Center machine room houses equipment vital to the rest of the campus network, including about half of Athena's user lockers and important network support equipment, said Coppeto, a systems programmer for Distributed Computing and Network Services.

Students' individual files, or lockers, are stored on servers located in several buildings on campus. The largest concentration of servers is in the Student Center and any student whose files were stored on a server there could not access them during the power outage, Coppeto said.

A router for the campus backbone, which provides the major underlying connection for computing across campus, is also located in the machine room, Coppeto said.

Though there are power outages all the time, the Student Center is especially sensitive, Coppeto said. The outage in the machine room, with "such a concentration of servers for that length of time," has never happened before, he said.

The machines are on battery backup, but the backup runs out of power after 10 or 20 minutes, Coppeto said.

All but one of the file servers were up again at about 11 p.m., Coppeto said. One did have problems, but this was fixed once some hardware was replaced, he said.