October 10, 1996

When the lights went out

by Hélèna Katz

George Panagiotidis, who works in the Earth and Planetary Sciences lab, was surprised to see electricians running around the building when he arrived for work on Friday, September 27.

He soon learned that the campus was in the early stages of what turned out to be a 50-hour power blackout. Electricity had gone off at 1:00 that morning and wasn't restored until 3 am on Sunday.

McGill's main power line was being repaired when the back-up system that was in use failed. Hydro Quebec's initial attempts to connect the University to another substation didn't work. Power was finally restored via a cable from a third substation. The back-up line was also being fixed and work was finished by 9 pm Sunday.

"A fault on a line is rare, but not exceptional," Hydro official Johanne Dufour said in a statement. "We usually transfer the load to the other line and that's that. The fact that the two lines were unavailable at the same time is such a rare occurrence that no one here remembers it ever happening."

Panagiotidis won't soon forget it. He's responsible for three cold storage rooms containing samples of Arctic ice and deep-sea sediments from the Labrador Sea that need to be kept at four degrees Centigrade.

"The cold storage rooms are 10 by 12 feet, so there's no way you could find enough ice for those things," he says. "We'd have to get an ice truck in here and start shovelling it in."

Except for "a couple of hours of shut-eye" and three quick trips home over the weekend to feed his pets, he stayed on campus until 4 am Sunday, keeping an eye on a generator hooked up on Friday afternoon.

"I coordinated bringing in power and we spent the whole time here in case the generator flipped off," he recalls. When the ordeal was over, "I collapsed from sheer exhaustion and was back in (at work) on Monday at noon."

Panagiotidis wasn't the only one who lost sleep. Facilities Development director Roy Dalebozik was roused out of bed at 2 am Friday by a telephone call about the power outage. Tom Kilbride, Electrical Operations Foreman, had already ordered a generator for the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building, saving losses in a number of labs.

Principal Bernard Shapiro and Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) François Tavenas decided early on Friday to close the campus and public relations director Kate Williams began informing local media of the shutdown at 5 am.

Polypeptide lab manager Sheryl Jackson heard about the power failure on CJAD when she woke up at 6 am, and is grateful for Kilbride's quick action. Twenty-three diabetes researchers work in Jackson's lab, which has two freezers that are maintained at -80 degrees Centigrade, another 12 regular ones and a large cold storage room.

"You can realize how important electricity is to us and unfortunately we don't have a back-up generator," Jackson says. "So when we have a power failure you can imagine how much we panic."

She drove to a dry-ice company in Ville St. Laurent and "bought as much as would fit in my trunk." When she arrived at McGill, she was thrilled to see that lights were on and that the emergency generator had helped keep things cold.

"We were cooking," Dalebozik says. "I had my cellular phone in one ear and another phone in the other ear." An international nursing conference was quickly moved from Wilson Hall to the Montreal Neurological Institute and a Friday night CBC/McGill concert was rerouted from Pollack Hall to La Chapelle Historique du Bon Pasteur.

Geography professor Wayne Pollard wasn't as lucky as Jackson's team. His lab's freezers held blocks of glacial and permafrost ice and half-millimetre samples which he puts on glass plates to examine the crystals.

"I have ice that is basically irreplaceable," he explained. "Each piece of ice is very expensive when you count all the time of going out, getting it, the helicopter time, gas, and so forth. For me to replace it, it would literally mean a trip back to the Arctic to the exact same site. Economically, it's unrealistic."

When he came in early Friday morning before heading off on a departmental field course, he thought the power outage was just temporary. Once in the Eastern Townships, he heard just how serious the problem was. "I went straight to my freezers when I got back Sunday night and that's when I realized my samples were gone."

The small pieces had already been analyzed but were being kept for reference. "At this point it's fate and I have to rely on the data I've got," he said. "I just hope the data I've collected over the past five years was enough."

It's a concern Pathology chair Dr. Alvin Shrier, building director of McIntyre Medical Sciences, understands. "If people have actually lost months of work, either they can make up the work and plod on, or in some cases the big question mark is whether you can get back what you lost," he said.

McIntyre lost its emergency power from 7 am to noon on Friday. "The worry was terrible," Shrier said. "Some people took their stuff out of freezers and stored them elsewhere. Others brought in buckets of dry ice while other people helped pack and held their breath."

Following a meeting Tavenas and Dalebozik had with Hydro-Québec last Thursday, McGill departments are tallying up the losses, which could be considerable. In a Tribune article this week, Microbiology chair Philip Branton estimated "the ballpark loss to be about $100,000 in our department alone." And the University faces bills for overtime and renting generators. Tavenas was pleased with the tone of the meeting. "It's not in the works that we will get full compensation for every direct and indirect loss, but they will try and provide reasonable compensation," he said in an interview.

"For now, I'm concerned with two things. First, having an appropriate resolution of technical issues for the future so that a situation like this won't happen again. The second is using the goodwill that is present at Hydro-Québec to compensate the (McGill) community."

On campus, the gratitude for people like Tom Kilbride and his crew, who worked steadily throughout the weekend, is still evident. "They were right on top of it and did a fantastic job," Panagiotidis said. Dalebozik agrees. "They were super. They really put out," their boss says proudly.