Power failure darkens downtown St. Paul

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Power failure darkens downtown St. Paul

Star Tribune Thursday, June 14, 2001

By Heron Marquez Estrada and Lourdes Medrano Leslie

It wasn't quite the day the Earth stood still, but much of downtown St. Paul came to a halt when an electrical fire shut off power to many buildings for more than an hour Wednesday morning.

The cause of the fire appeared to be a malfunctioning switching device in an underground vault, located next to the St. Paul Companies at the corner of Washington and 5th Sts.

The malfunction started a fire, which forced Xcel Energy to cut power to about half of downtown about 10:30 a.m. to ensure there wouldn't be an explosion in the vault.

Among the buildings affected were the St. Paul Companies, the St. Paul Hotel, the Ordway Center, the Landmark Center, Lawson Commons, Ecolab and dozens of other businesses.

Traffic also was snarled when signal lights stopped working; meanwhile, thousands of workers streamed into the streets.

"I've got 200 people sitting at their desks with nothing to do," said a supervisor at Qwest Communications. "It's more of a personnel and administrative nightmare for us."

No serious injuries were reported.

Power was restored to nearly every building by about 11:35 a.m., Xcel spokesman Paul Adelmann said. The St. Paul Companies and the Ordway were the last buildings to have power restored, at about 2 p.m.

Outside the Lawson building, Lisa Hallam smoked a cigarette and sipped a Coke while she waited to return to her job as an accountant on the 13th floor. She said the company's approximately 1,000 employees left the building after alarms went off.

"It got a little hot in the stairwell," she said of the walk down. "But it was better than having to go up 13 floors."

A St. Paul Companies spokeswoman said that the insurance company never closed and that only a few employees departed the building.

At the RiverCentre convention center and arena complex, officials said that they were warned about the fire but that they never lost power.

However, visitors to the nearby Science Museum of Minnesota missed a film in the Omnitheater when the power failed.

Regions Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital also didn't lose power, and backup generators kept the City Hall/Courthouse elevators and courtrooms humming.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), which has its studios in downtown St. Paul, was briefly off the air.

MPR Vice President Will Haddeland said the station was off "for a very, very short time before our pre-World War II generators kicked in," enabling the station to send its signal out to its 27 affiliates.

At Kincaid's restaurant, it was the second time in a month a power failure had spoiled lunch preparations.

"We probably lost [$7,000] to $8,000 today," said chef Justin Dumcum, who sat in the doorway along with other employees, trying to keep cool. "We've got experience dealing with this type of thing, but it's not something I like to do every day."

On Wabasha Street, city workers John Simonson, 20, and Sam Halter, 18, said they wondered why so many people were hanging around outside so early in the day, and why the traffic lights had stopped working.

But they kept hanging flower baskets with petunias, geraniums and marigolds along Wabasha light poles.

"We didn't know about the power outage," Halter said. "I thought it was an early lunch, or a smoke break."

Staff writer Curt Brown contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 14, 2001

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