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A City Stuck in Sudden Disorder

Blackout snarls traffic, halts elevators, jams garage doors and empties high-rises.

September 13, 2005|Nita Lelyveld and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

The skittish turned panicky, spooked by the sudden darkness and wailing alarms. The bold considered it an extended lunch break, or better yet, a chance to duck out early from work.

The blackout that hopscotched through Los Angeles on Monday afternoon left drivers fuming at chaotic intersections, residents stuck at home because of inoperable garages, and many of the city's 22,000 elevators, at least briefly, inoperable.

In downtown Los Angeles, the streets were crowded with workers who had been evacuated from high-rises, and the streets were gridlocked by confused drivers. It took Matt Jarrette 25 minutes to navigate what usually was a five-minute trip on the last leg of the drive to his Wilshire Boulevard office. Traffic lights didn't work. Cars were jammed in the streets. Firetrucks roared in different directions.

"No one knew what to do," he said. "There were no police anywhere."

Things were hardly better when he arrived at work. Elevators and cellphones were dead. His co-workers were in the dark, in more ways than one. No one had been evacuated and without radios or outside connections, they didn't realize that the problem was citywide.

At the nearby Wilshire Grand Hotel and Centre, employees manned every floor with glow sticks. All of the hotel's 900 rooms were booked because of a Microsoft convention, said General Manager John Stoddard. Customers worked in the lobby on battery-powered laptops. Bellboys guided customers to their rooms in the dark. Staff members manually controlled two elevators that were powered by generators.

For many, the fact that the outage followed Sunday's anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks made the blackout seem more ominous.

When the lights at Two California Plaza went out, most of Elizabeth Dombrowski's fellow accountants kept working quietly on battery-powered laptops in offices illuminated by sunlight streaming through windows. But Dombrowski grabbed the phone and made what she hoped were unnecessary goodbye calls to her parents, sister and boyfriend. She was half-joking, she said, but serious enough to slip off her high heels, pull on running shoes and make her way down the stairs from the 46th floor.

Dombrowski, 26, had heard about a recently released videotape, purportedly linked to Al Qaeda, that identified Los Angeles as a likely target for a terrorist attack.

Sabotaging the city's power delivery could be the first part of a terrorist plot, she speculated aloud, as she stood among hundreds of office workers gathered Monday afternoon on the sidewalk of the downtown plaza outside the skyscraper. "They make you scared when the power goes off. Then you feel safe when the electricity goes back on. Then they bomb you."

Others were more worried about thieves than terrorists. At the Jewelry District in downtown Los Angeles, home to 5,000 jewelers and more than $45 million in precious stones and metals, the blackout jangled nerves. Security systems automatically summoned police. Metal gates clanked into place, locking buildings down with customers inside. Security guards went into "battle mode," said Gemspot owner Peter Boyadjian.

"Everyone becomes very ready for whatever can happen," he said. "All the security alarms go off. It triggers chaos. It makes customers nervous, especially when a security guard unholsters their gun."

Even where the blackout was brief, it took much of the day to reset traffic lights, frustrating commuters from the South Bay to the San Fernando Valley.

Cabdriver Moges Wondemteka, 32, was driving a passenger near Alvarado Street and Olympic Boulevard when the traffic lights went haywire. For the next few hours, as he traveled across North Hollywood, West Los Angeles and downtown, drivers crept haltingly through confusing intersections. Pedestrians darted across streets without crosswalk signals. And calls poured into his dispatcher from people who needed cabs because they couldn't get their cars out of their electronically controlled garages.

"You couldn't imagine the traffic," he said. Even on normally flowing surface streets, "it was bumper to bumper."

Some places felt the loss of electricity more keenly than others. Two floors underground, in the cavernous archives of the Los Angeles Courthouse, everything went pitch-black just after 1 p.m. In the darkness, people began to shriek, swear and scream.

Within a minute, an emergency generator kicked in and the lights flickered on. People blinked at each other, embarrassed and scared, then went back to pulling files.

In the beauty salon at the JC Penney store in Glendale, Irene Magallanes had to abort a permanent wave and pull the curling rods from her client's hair when security guards ordered the store evacuated.

"She wasn't too happy," the beautician said. "She said this was the one day she could make the time to do her hair. She wound up wasting time in the parking lot instead."

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