Transformer failure leaves Chautauqua in the dark

Photos | Megan Tan and Ellie Haugsby

John Ford | Staff Writer

Chautauqua Institution lost electric power throughout the grounds just before 3 p.m. Thursday on a sweltering and humid afternoon. A transformer at the local National Grid substation failed, and power was not restored until 6 a.m. Friday.

George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer, described the scene on the second floor of the Colonnade after initial word reached President Thomas Becker’s office that the blackout might last for 24 hours.

“National Grid informed us around 5 p.m. that their reset procedures on the substation transformer had failed,” Murphy said. “They would need to bring in a new portable substation from Buffalo. That meant we might be without power for much longer than had originally been reported.”

Becker convened a working group of Institution personnel and representatives from the local police and the fire departments, joined by Julius J. Leone, director of Chautauqua County Emergency Services.

The focus of the conversation, Murphy said, was individual safety on the grounds and operations.

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Following an announcement on the Amphitheater stage prior to the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night, Becker recorded a reverse 911 message that was sent to all 357 exchange landlines explaining the facts of the situation, including operation of the gates and trams, as well as the Institution’s decisions regarding programming.

When Mark Powers, Chautauqua Fire Department chief, learned of the power outage, he and his crew were at the lakefront providing some relief from the heat for a group of young Chautauquans. Learning the severity of the problem, Powers put his team into action.

“Every call, whether it is a rescue or a fire, is like a puzzle,” Powers said. “The manpower, EMT, fire … everybody holds a piece. By the time you shake the box, all the pieces are falling into place. It’s organized chaos.”

Following the Colonnade meeting, Powers worked with Leone and Chautauqua County Coordinators Mike Gleason and Richard Cole to discuss where to pull manpower from departments throughout the county.

Powers set up two four-hour shifts for personnel to cover the grounds. Volunteers from Sherman, Sheridan, Lakewood, Brocton, Forestville, Ashville, Mayville and Bemus Point fire departments assisted throughout the night.

Powers said the regional cooperation was especially gratifying and probably resulted from everyone in the area pitching in to help deal with flooding in Silver Creek several years ago.

The Institution grounds were divided into six section for fire watch. Two volunteers were assigned to a quadrant, patrolling the area on a golf cart and equipped with fire extinguishers and a water cannon.

Powers said the fire watch was necessary to ensure there were no pedestrians in trouble, to respond to buildings where fire alarms were no longer working, and to check houses that were at risk of fire due to the use of candles.

In houses where candles were visible from outside, firefighters knocked on doors to notify occupants of serious safety hazards. Powers added that air flow from open windows and recent lack of rain exacerbated the risk of fire.

An ambulance from Ashville, N.Y., was on the grounds through the night, and paramedics were on duty, including personnel from Sherman and Bemus Point, N.Y., Powers said. Medical personnel responded to an elderly woman who needed her oxygen supply replaced every three to four hours.

The American Red Cross provided breakfast Friday morning at the Fire Hall.

Also contributing to the overall emergency response to the blackout was an Operations Office team led by Doug Conroe and John Shedd. The team checked on alarm panels, fueled generators and pumped septic tanks. Many Institution employees and others volunteered through the night. Among these were Chaz Borton, Dave Simpson, Brian Bates, Jeff Rice, Chuck Rugg, Dennis Dixon and Butch Briggs.

Back at the transformer site next to the Main Gate, National Grid substation supervisor Bob Price explained what triggered the blackout.

“The substation transformer failed,” he said. “That failure resulted from usage overload — it could have been the air conditioning surge resulting from the intense heat, but we won’t know until we analyze the failed transformer. In any case, the transformer failure triggered two blown fuses. Electric power in the Institution shut down.”

Price said he and area line supervisor Tony Carruth were notified promptly and were soon on the scene, together with Price’s four-man crew, which had reported for work at 6 a.m. After some deliberation, they concluded that a substitute substation was needed. At 9:15 p.m., an 18-wheel flatbed truck from Buffalo, N.Y., pulled up outside the Main Gate with the portable substation aboard.

In the meantime, Institution crew and volunteers had cleared out a space next to the existing substation. Chautauqua police were visibly circulating around the grounds, checking on welfare and safety issues.

Price and a power company crew, now expanded to 13 from several surrounding counties, spent the next nine hours disconnecting the failed transformer and hooking up the portable one. Local fire and emergency services showed up with extra high-intensity lights for the overnight work. A clear moonlight night with slightly cooling temperatures helped.

Finally, at 6 a.m., Chautauqua was turned back on.

Price now was overseeing the final cleanup.

“I’ve worked for the power company for 22 years,” he said. “In that time, we have had to deal with about 10 or 11 incidents as serious as this one.”

He said everyone should know the portable power station is more than capable of pulling Chautauqua’s load.

“We’ll leave the portable substation here until we can install a new permanent one,” he said. “That may take some time. No one should be concerned that we will pull it out prematurely.”

Sixteen hours earlier, Stephanie Holt had just finished her day’s work Thursday as head of Chautauqua’s lost-and-found office. She was waiting, as usual, for her son to pick her up on Route 394, just outside the Tasty Acres diner. It was 2:40 p.m.

“There was this boom,” she recalled. “I flinched, blinked, looked around for the source of what I thought might be a gunshot. Except it was too loud. More like a thunderclap, though the sky was clear. I looked up.”

Holt saw two rods dangling from the National Grid power substation wires just outside the Institution’s Main Gate. She heard the large backup generator next to the Fire Hall roar to life.

Chautauqua’s first — and hopefully, last — summer 2011 electrical power blackout had begun. It would end early Friday morning as residents awoke from sleeping porches, floors and wherever they could find cool air.

“Am I bad for thinking air conditioning is more essential than water sometimes?” murmured one Chautauquan, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “Isn’t it amazing how much we all rely on electric power?”