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THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Blackout Brings Together Factions in Crisis

March 20, 2001|TIM REITERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — A 2 1/2-hour blackout that hit this city Monday thrust together an odd set of neighbors.

In the courtyard of the California Public Utilities Commission, employees who were forced to abandon their darkened offices found themselves enduring friendly jibes from Southern California Edison officials--whose offices across the street were blacked out, too.

"I came here to express my frustration with this building," said Bruce C. Foster, a vice president of Edison, which has been driven toward insolvency by California's energy crunch.

PUC employees looked on as Foster went on a good-natured tear against the agency at the center of the crisis.

"We're out of business frankly for lack of leadership of this commission. They seem hellbent on not facing reality. We need to let consumers realize the cost of energy" through rate increases, he said.

PUC employees did not expect to find themselves outside at all, let alone in the company of critics. They had no blackout warning because the building manager was at an energy conservation conference across town at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and had his cell phone off.

PG&E told the PUC of an imminent power outage at 12:09 p.m., said PUC spokesman Armando Rendon. But the building manager did not turn his phone back on until 12:25.

"He got in touch with Executive Director Wes Franklin, and while they were on the phone, the lights went out," Rendon said.

Computers went dead; phones went silent. Some of the 750 employees kept working, but those with windowless offices had no choice but to take the emergency stairs from the modern complex across from City Hall.

Pat Berdge, a PUC attorney who works on safety issues, cradled a flashlight in the courtyard. "Everyone knew this would happen sooner or later," he said. "We just did not know it would happen today."

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