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The World

Italy's Electricity Returns Gradually

The source of the outage was Switzerland, where a tree branch disabled a power line, officials say.

September 29, 2003|From Associated Press

ROME — Power returned to Italy bit by bit Sunday after a blackout that affected most of the country's 57 million people, and authorities said a tree branch that hit Swiss power lines during a storm helped trigger the failure.

The outage that began before dawn was blamed for three deaths and trapped thousands of people on trains. Only the island of Sardinia was unaffected.

The lights came back on in northern Italy by early morning and in most of Rome shortly after noon. Power was restored to the rest of the country late Sunday, television news reported.

The ANSA news agency said two women -- one 81 and the other 72 -- died in accidents when they fell down darkened stairs. A 92-year-old woman died of burns after a candle set her clothes on fire.

Tommaso Primavera, 17, was riding his motor scooter in Rome when the lights went out.

"There was panic on the streets," he said. "The tourists went mad -- everyone was thinking about themselves."

The city had been holding an all-night festival with museums, bars and shops still open at the time of the blackout.

The result was that many people who had been encouraged to use public transport found themselves stranded at subway stations.

With scant domestic supply and swelling public demand, Italy imports a significant amount of its electricity. Initial investigations indicated the outage was a chain reaction that started in Switzerland and moved through France.

In Switzerland, a tree branch hit and disabled a power transmission line. This caused another Swiss line to overload, which then knocked out French transmission to Italy.

Italian energy company Enel agreed with the Swiss description of the chain reaction. But France's electricity grid operator RTE said it was too early to speculate about causes.

The blackout halted about 110 trains with 30,000 passengers, delayed numerous flights and forced a few to be canceled. Hospitals had to rely on generators.

Italian officials acknowledged that the domestic energy system was gravely insufficient.

Enel spokesman Ralph Traviato said Italy imports up to 17% of its energy, compared with Europe's average of 2%. He noted that Italy's production is reduced overnight, so any late-night problem from international suppliers has a magnified effect.

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