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Power Failure Darkens L.A.'s Tallest Towers

October 07, 1987|DAVID FERRELL and NIESON HIMMEL | Times Staff Writers

More than four square miles of downtown Los Angeles, including 30 of the city's tallest office towers, lost electrical power most of Tuesday morning after a massive pre-dawn fire exploded through a city utility station, officials reported.

The blackout, considered one of the worst ever downtown, tied up commuter traffic and brought the city's financial center to a virtual standstill, leaving thousands of employees milling outside darkened office buildings.

About 37,000 electrical customers--including many with hundreds or thousands of employees--were affected by the blackout, which began at 1:58 a.m. when flames engulfed a 20-foot-high transformer owned by the Department of Water and Power, agency spokesman Ed Freudenburg said.

Lasts for 9 Hours

Although DWP officials had begun to restore power to some of the affected area by dawn, more than 20,000 customers were without electricity until a second transformer began to take up some of the load at 10:30 a.m.--more than eight hours after the blaze erupted, Freudenburg said.

About 12,000 customers went without power until 11:30 a.m., when a third transformer was activated to restore service in the Central City to normal, he said.

Police reported no major accidents or injuries as a result of darkened intersections or failing electrical equipment. But the incident had a massive impact on downtown workers in a city still reeling from last week's 6.1 earthquake and searing daytime temperatures of more than 100 degrees.

City traffic engineers said 85 intersections were without electric signals as morning commuters streamed into the affected area--bounded by 1st Street on the north, the Santa Monica Freeway on the south, Central Avenue on the east and Hoover Street on the west. About 130 city traffic officers directed cars by hand at those locations while repair crews put up temporary stop signs, traffic engineer Tom Conner said.

"What we did this morning was very similar to what we did during the earthquake," Conner said.

The power failure caused problems for some of the city's largest banks, law firms and other businesses. It provided thousands of downtown workers an unexpectedly short workday, while forcing others to toil without air conditioning and elevators. Southern California Gas Co. sent home most of the 1,400 employees at its South Flower Street headquarters at 9:45 a.m., while other businesses, such as Security Pacific Bank, stuck it out, despite the limited amounts of lighting, telephones and even water.

Estimates of the economic loss were not readily available, although the disruptions were extreme: "We've missed a day in the markets--and the markets require constant attention," said Robert A. White, a vice president who supervises currency trading at First Interstate Bancorp.

At Crocker Center, which houses about 12,000 employees, IBM was just one of many large firms affected by the outage. IBM began sending home employees at 10 a.m. and had cleared out its 28 stories of offices by 11:30--just about the time power was resumed, corporate spokesman Margot Desannoy said.

Desannoy said she arrived at work about 7 a.m. and was forced to wait nearly five minutes in line to take one of several emergency elevators to her 16th-floor office. Workers were unable to use company computers and those far from windows were barely able to see in the dimness of emergency lights, she said.

Restrooms were nearly dark and those above the eighth floor were almost without running water because of failed electrical pumps, Desannoy said.

"There was minimal light," she said. "The telephone service was intermittent. We gave people the option of working at (other) IBM sites or going home."

Some newer buildings, including the 36-story, 1,500-room Westin Bonaventure, fared better than older buildings that were completely without backup electrical supplies. At the Bonaventure, emergency generators kicked in immediately and the hotel experienced almost no effects of the blackout, according to managing director David Ling.

No guests were trapped in elevators and the hotel, which feeds from two different electrical receiving stations, was able to shift its power supply to the undamaged station and go back to almost normal operation by dawn, Ling said. The biggest problem was an unavailability of cold water for air conditioning and hot water for showers, he said.

"So we had some guests take some cool showers this morning," Ling said. "But we did get a lot of breakfast business . . . from people who couldn't go to work in their office buildings. That was the silver lining, I guess, on the black cloud."

Los Angeles City Hall, just north of 1st Street, was not affected by the outage, but half of nearby Parker Center--headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department--was without power until about 10 a.m., police spokesman Bill Frio said.

The outage caused no problems for police trying to deal with the problem, Frio said.

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