Power outage cripples San Francisco for seven hours

By Reuters/Alexandria Sage and Noel Randewich   April 22, 2017 | 09:09 am GMT+7
Power outage cripples San Francisco for seven hours
Workers with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) gather outside a substation after a fire in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Stephen Lam

A massive power outage threw San Francisco into chaos for most of the work day on Friday, knocking out traffic signals, paralyzing businesses and halting the city's famed cable cars.

The power outage, which was triggered by a fire in a PG&E Corp. utility substation, disrupted San Francisco's normally bustling financial district, home to banks and technology companies.

The blackout started just after 9 a.m. (noon ET/1600 GMT) and at one point affected nearly 90,000 customers, according to PG&E. The cause of the fire was a circuit breaker failure at the substation, PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said.

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Office workers wait for building elevators to resume working during a power cut in downtown San Francisco, California, U.S. April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Alexandria Sage

Office workers unable to access elevators or use their keycards spilled out onto the sidewalks, some wandering the streets in search of an open cafe or sunny spot to enjoy a rare warm San Francisco day.

Others simply went home, with long lines forming for ferries. For many, there was little to do but wait.

"When I got here we had to shut down all the servers, all the work stations were off-line," said Bard Wood, an information technology worker in the financial district. "I'm sure we've lost millions of dollars already. There's no business down here right now."

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Customers walk through a darkened shopping mall during to a power cut in San Francisco, California, U.S. April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Alexandria Sage

Some cable car operators snoozed after their cars stalled on the street rails.

Traffic was snarled and emergency workers responded to 20 elevator rescues, according to the city's fire department, but there were no reported deaths or major injuries. But many businesses, from coffee shops to major banks, took a hit.

Wells Fargo & Co closed 13 bank branches and four office buildings, while the New York Stock Exchange said its ARCA options trading floor in San Francisco was briefly unavailable. Employees in Goldman Sachs' financial district office were sent home.

King Lip, chief investment officer at Baker Avenue Asset Management, said his firm was in the middle of a trade when "all our systems went down." He said employees in another state had to complete the transaction.

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A sign on a restaurant informs customers that the facility is closed due to a power cut, in the financial district of San Francisco, California, U.S. April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Alexandria Sage

Two office buildings and a local branch of First Republic Bank were shut down, a sign on the branch's doorway apologizing for the unexpected closure.

Fourteen neighborhoods were affected, including the main shopping district near Union Square, where stores turned signs to "closed" and major retailers such as Macy's and Louis Vuitton shut their doors.

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An employee stands outside the closed doors of Macy's department store, during a power cut in San Francisco, California, U.S. April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Alexandria Sage

In a city proud of its technological prowess, the outage forced residents back to the dark ages. At the salad bar MIXT, cashiers took credit card payments using old-fashioned paper imprints.

"Old school," commented patron Ben Fackler. "I haven't seen that in forever."

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People wait outside the Phillip Burton Federal Building & United States Courthouse during a major power outage in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Stephen Lam

Darkened by one substation

For more than two hours, trains barreled through the Montgomery Street station - one of the busiest stops that services the downtown and financial district - as the outage prevented them from stopping until backup generators came on line, Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesman Jim Allison said.

Power was finally restored to all customers by 6 pm local time, PG&E said.

"Workers have entered the substation. They're assessing the damage and starting to make repairs,” Doherty said.

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A police officers directs traffic on Market Street during a major power outage in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Stephen Lam

San Francisco International Airport remained operational, and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said there was no evidence of terrorism. The spokesperson requested anonymity, citing department policy.

"This had nothing to do with cyber," said Joe Weiss, an expert on control system cyber security who has testified to Congress about structural weaknesses in grid components.

"The real question is how could one substation take out, effectively, San Francisco?"

An FBI spokesman said the agency monitored the incident but is not investigating.

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A Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) worker pulls a caution tape near two generators above Montgomery station during a major power outage in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 21, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Stephen Lam

Twenty-one San Francisco schools lost power, but remained open nonetheless, according to a Department of Emergency spokesman. At least three hospitals had to rely on backup generators, canceling elective surgeries and redirecting emergency patients to other facilities.

Joanna Gadd, 55, was in the admitting room of the city’s Saint Francis Memorial Hospital waiting for her daughter to undergo surgery when the lights went out.

The diagnostic surgery was canceled. She had forfeited a trip to the United Kingdom, including airfare, to accommodate the operation.

"It is frustrating,” Gadd said. "It's quite nerve-racking going into surgery. She had been fasting, and fasting for someone with diabetes is definitely no picnic."

 
 
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