Power restored in San Francisco after massive outage

People stand outside their office building in the Financial District after a power outage Friday, April 21, 2017, in San Francisco.

Janie Har, AP

Last Updated Apr 21, 2017 9:34 PM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO --  A power substation fire triggered a massive outage in San Francisco Friday, forcing the closure of a downtown BART station during rush hour and leaving some customers without power until it was finally restored after 5 p.m.

The outage left people stuck in elevators, shut down hospital operating rooms and halted service on city’s famed cable car lines.

Pacific Gas and Electric spokesman Barry Anderson said the power outage began with the failure of a circuit breaker at the large substation at Larkin and Eddy streets.

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The Montgomery Bay Area Rapid Transit station is dark following a power outage Friday, April 21, 2017, in San Francisco. A wide area of San Francisco has been hit by a power outage. The blackout hit at midmorning Friday in the Financial District and other areas. 

Jocelyn Gecker, AP

“We had equipment failure, the catastrophic failure of a circuit breaker,” said Anderson. “When it failed, it created a fire in the insulation surrounding the breaker … Something went wrong with the breaker to cause it to explode.”

A city transportation official said that at its height, the outage knocked out a third of San Francisco’s traffic signals.

Mayor Ed Lee said of the 88,000 customers who lost power, 58,000 has been restored by 2 p.m. The remainder would be restored by 5 p.m.

Twenty-one schools were among the customers who lost power. At its worst, approximately 300 or about one quarter of the city’s stoplights were out.

PG&E said the equipment was old. From a PR standpoint, the meltdown couldn’t have had worse timing.

Just a few days ago, reports revealed that PG&E had given all its executives substantial raises. With customers paying higher rates, some are understandably concerned the utility is spending the money in the wrong place.

“The Larkin substation was one we identified to be redone in 2017-18 and needed to be modernized,” said PG&E spokesperson Barry Anderson.

What was likely going to be a $100 million job for that substation alone now could cost much more.

As of 4 p.m., the number of customers who still did not have power had been reduced to less than 3,000. Power was restored to all customers shortly after 5 p.m.

Lee said there were no reports of major injuries during the outage.

The city’s Department of Emergency Management said the outages were concentrated in the northern part of San Francisco. The fire department responded to at least 20 reports of people stuck in downtown elevators.

During the height of the outage, California Pacific Medical Center forced to go on backup power and shut down its operating rooms.

The outage began 9:15 a.m., Anderson said. Almost immediately BART sent out an alert advising passengers of the closure at Montgomery St. Station “due to a technical problem with PG&E.” Commuters were told to take buses to their destinations in the downtown area.

The transit agency brought in a generator and parked it outside the station in an effort to get it back online. The generator was able to bring the station online at 11:32 a.m.

he Montgomery station is a key stop all BART lines coming into the city. San Francisco Muni underground lines and cable car lines were also knocked out of service.

The San Francisco Office of Emergency offices in the Fillmore District was knocked offline by the outage, officials said.

Meanwhile, the power outage caused traffic chaos on the streets of San Francisco.

Residents milled on sidewalks, controllers directed traffic manually, and shops were dark. Some buildings had power, others did not. ATM screens were blank.

Susan Dang, a manager of a doughnut and Vietnamese sandwich shop, said they would have to close unless they could get a generator.

“If there’s no power, I let my boss know already,” she said.

Employees at a Starbucks were giving out cups of iced and hot coffee in the darkened shop. A worker said that was better than letting the coffee go to waste.

Brent Chapman, who works in billing and reporting for First Republic Bank, told his team to go home after huddling on a sidewalk and waiting for word of when power would be restored.

His team had been ready to send out a finished project Friday, one they’d been working on for six months, after some had pulled an all-nighter.

“It’s brutal. This is seriously the worst possible time that this could have happened,” he said. “I do not want to leave. I want to stay and get this done.”

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A fire truck at top left and other traffic try to make their way around a pair of idled cablecars on California Street after a large power outage Friday, April 21, 2017, in San Francisco.

Eric Risberg, AP