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Blackout cancels court, traps people in elevators

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A restaurant waiter earned appreciative honks from drivers and a thank-you hug from police after he directed heavy traffic during a downtown hydro blackout caused by a rodent, likely a rat or a squirrel.

The hour-long power outage knocked out signal lights, snarling traffic. Many office buildings were evacuated. There were also reports of people trapped in elevators until power was restored.

The legislature and the Law Courts building were among 4,300 customers who lost power after a hydro transformer blew out just after lunch yesterday.

The borders of the blackout were Grant Park Shopping Centre in the south, Sutherland Avenue in the north, Lagimodiere Boulevard in the east and Arlington Street in the west.

The problem was traced to a rodent coming in contact with a power line. The animal's carcass was badly burned and its species was not immediately apparent.

On Broadway, none of the signals was working but, fortunately, Nigel Jaikaran was.

Still wearing his white apron, the server at Amici Restaurant left the dwindling lunch crowd to direct traffic, earning applause from passersby, happy honks from motorists -- and a hug from the police officer who relieved him.

"He said 'good job' and I said 'I gotta go back to work now,' " said Jaikaran, who works part-time at the Broadway eatery.

"People were super co-operative. People honked and said 'good job!,'" said the 27-year-old Kelvin High School grad. "It was pretty fun, and I was taking pride in my city."

Police said they don't encourage citizens to put themselves at risk, but that Winnipeggers are ready to step in and help in an emergency.

"Winnipeggers have big hearts and want to see one another safe," city police spokeswoman Shelly Glover said. "They have a keen sense of what's right and what's wrong and do a good job of helping us when it's needed." She said she hadn't received any reports of collisions resulting from the power failure.

Just a block away from where the waiter was directing traffic, it was mayhem at the intersection of Broadway at Donald Street before police arrived. Screeching brakes and close calls jangled the nerves of pedestrians trying to navigate the chaos.

Police received the first call that traffic lights were out on Panet Road at about 1:20 p.m., followed by 16 more calls. The city's 911 system was not affected, said Glover.

Glenn Korman was just heading into the Woodsworth Building at 405 Broadway when he heard a loud bang from the rear of the building.

"You could hear a concussion, like a shotgun blast," said Korman, manager of technology services for Manitoba Justice administration. "I knew there was definitely something wrong." The power station is directly behind the building.

Fire trucks quickly arrived, although there were no flames or smoke to be seen, said Korman.

The power outage caused trouble at the downtown Law Courts building, where the audio taping of court proceedings is essential.

Some lawyers were in mid-sentence when the lights went out, forcing an unscheduled recess. Other cases slated to begin at 2 p.m. were delayed, or even cancelled.

A long lineup of people snaked outside the York Avenue courthouse, because sheriff's officers were unable to use the electronic X-ray and scanning devices necessary to let them enter the building.

When power was finally restored, chief provincial court Judge Ray Wyant and Queen's Bench Associate Chief Justice Jeffrey Oliphant decided that courts could continue sitting for the afternoon.

However, they said individual judges and lawyers could decide if they wanted to risk it, since there were no guarantees the power would stay on.

During the high-profile Daniel Tokarchuk murder trial, Crown attorney Bob Morrison was set to begin his closing arguments, but decided to wait until this morning for fear of being cut off and forced to start over again.

Ironically, Warren Leonard, manager of Toronto's emergency management office, was in downtown Winnipeg yesterday afternoon -- here to speak on the huge blackout along the Eastern Seaboard in August, 2003.

Leonard joked the power outage wasn't part of his presentation.

"I kept a low profile. I just kind of skulked around in the corners," he said. "At the beginning of my talk, I did ask if anyone else had managed to have their emergency actually happen on the day of their talk as I did."

Leonard spoke at a conference of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network.

He was eating lunch yesterday, just prior to his scheduled talk, when the lights began to flicker at the Fort Garry Hotel.

"The power went out and within 10 seconds they came back on, running on generator power," he said. "We just went on. It was business as usual. But that's because of the efforts the hotel has taken to protect themselves."

The culprit?

"We've got a rodent -- a rat or a squirrel," said Manitoba Hydro spokesman Jim Peters. "It made contact with a power line coming into the Edmonton Street station."

The subsequent power surge caused transformer failure that had a cascading effect on five substations.

Two years ago, a squirrel that weaseled its way into the transformer at Edmonton and York caused a similar outage. That lasted for just a couple of minutes and affected about 1,500 customers.

This time, it was hard to say what kind of critter caused the outage.

"It was either a rat or a squirrel ...there wasn't much hair left on it," one hydro employee said yesterday.

Workers actually had a white sheet over the rodent's carcass before it was dumped into a big, orange garbage bag.
-- With files from Mike McIntyre

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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