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50-Block Power Outage Ends in Downtown Seattle

September 5, 1988

SEATTLE (AP) _ Utility crews worked Monday to complete repairs to the last of six electricity cables damaged in a fire that blacked out 50 blocks of downtown Seattle for nearly four days.

Workers had restored power by Sunday evening to the entire area with the exception of one building - a parking garage with some office space - near the underground vault where the fire began.

In addition, said Seattle City Light spokesman Scott Forslund, electricity had not been turned back on in a few buildings whose owners weren’t available or chose to wait, Forslund said.

The sixth and final 13,000-volt cable gives the system redundant capacity, in case of extra-heavy demand or the need to turn off power in one of the other cables to make repairs, said Scott Forslund, Seattle City Light spokesman.

About half the affected customers had begun getting power when the switch was thrown on four feeder cables Saturday evening, and other customers were hooked up overnight before the fifth cable was repaired Sunday evening.

As power was restored, fire crews roamed the area to ensure that no fires broke out in equipment on which power switches were on when the outage began.

City Light officials had no estimate of costs to restore power or repair damage, City Light spokesman Hugh McIntosh said.

The cause of the fire that sparked Seattle’s biggest-ever power outage Wednesday remained unknown, but officials said an aluminum, direct-current supply cable for overhead electrical trolley bus lines was a key factor in the blackout’s severity.

City Light assistant superintendent Jerry Garman said Monday that the fire ″undoubtedly″ started in low-voltage City Light cables, which run from transformers to feed individual buildings.

As the system heated, power to the high-voltage feeder cables should have been cut by ″current limiters.″ But the Metro transit cable melted, and molten aluminum cut the high-voltage cables before power could be cut to all but two of them.

″Once the DC (Metro cable) started to go ... it took what would have been a minor inconvenience and turned it into a major event,″ Garman said.

″It’s like we had eight or nine welding torches going at the same time.″

What caused the low-voltage cables to catch fire in the first place won’t be known until data is analyzed, Garman said, adding he could not predict how long that would take.

In the meantime, City Light crews will check other locations with similar dual arrangements of City Light and Metro cables to try to head off other problems, Garman said.

″I’m sure we’re going to be looking at ways of protecting us from them and them from us,″ he said.

Some customers in the blacked-out area already have filed monetary claims against the city, claiming losses as the result of the failure, Forslund said.

During the height of the blackout, city officials estimated that 90 percent of all businesses were closed in the area, which included an estimated 130 restaurants, 55 shops in the popular Pike Place Market, the Bon Marche department store, the 875-room Westin Hotel, and uncounted other hotels, grocery stores and taverns.

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