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Blackout Paralyzes Nation’s Capital, Wreaks Havoc With Rush Hour With PM-Electric Junkies Bjt

January 7, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It left the Washington Monument in an eery darkness, trapped dozens in stopped elevators, halted computers, cash registers and telephones and allowed untreated sewage to pour into the Potomac River.

But worst of all, a two-hour power outage Monday during the height of the evening exodus from the nation’s capital elevated the always testy rush hour to a horrific quagmire on darkened streets.

″It was whoever got out, got out on their own,″ said Dalject Singh, 28, a restaurant manager whose one-mile trek squeezing through intersections without traffic lights took half an hour.

″You had to find your own way out because no one was going to let you out. No courtesy whatsoever. You just got what you took,″ Singh said of his dog- eat-dog commute.

Some commuters headed to taverns or checked into hotels to avoid the mess.

Police reported no serious injuries or outbreaks of crime.

The outage hit at about 5:10 p.m. and lights began turning back on about an hour and 40 minutes later. All power was restored by 7:45 p.m., said Debra Leak, a spokeswoman for the Potomac Electric Power Co.

Utility officials blamed the outage on the failure of a 230,000 volt line somewhere between the company’s Potomac River generating station in Alexandria, Va., and the District of Columbia.

A 480 megawatt generating station also failed, and the cause was not known, the utility said.

About 18,000 customers were without service, Pepco said. But in this case, one customer could be an entire office building. Traffic signals failed and, in some places, smoke rose from manholes.

J.L. O’Neil, a battalion fire chief, said the outage caused a fire in electrical cables under the streets near the Chinatown section of Washington.

He said the tunnels under 6th Street were ″clogged with smoke,″ forcing firefighters to go several blocks away to fight the blaze and prevent it from spreading.

The darkness left motorists stranded in grid lock as traffic signals were knocked out, and office buildings - including city hall - were evacuated. Three downtown subway stations were blacked out, but trains kept running.

Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was in her office when the lights went out, said the major problem caused by the outage was the large number of people trapped in elevators.

″The fire department had to go out on 80 separate calls to respond to those incidents,″ she said. ″I am happy to say all of those situations were successfully resolved and there were no injuries or untoward incidents.″

Kelly, a former Pepco executive, praised the utility’s diligence in restoring service, especially to the city’s waste water treatment plant on the Potomac River, where untreated sewage flowed into the Potomac River during the outage.

″We had a constructive working relationship with Pepco throughout ... to get the Blue Plains plant back on line as quickly as possible to avoid any health hazard,″ the mayor said.

Public Works director Esther Hager Francis said the quality of drinking water was not affected.

Motorists who couldn’t move because of traffic backups caused by disabled traffic lights, tried to make the best of the situation.

″What are you going to do? That’s life in the city,″ Tim Sheehy said.

John Kwitkoski, who works in a downtown office building, stood in the middle of heavily traveled K Street, directing traffic with two flashlights for about 90 minutes until police arrived.

″Someone had to do it,″ said Kwitkoski. ″It’s a mess.″

In darkened parking garages, attendants guided customers to their cars using flashlights. Some, however, found their own way.

″I just had a lighter in my pocket so I took it out and found my way out that way,″ Merv Greenwood, 40, of Vienna, Va., said.

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