Fire leaves Back Bay ashen, powerless

Electrical fire leaves Boston residents in the dark this week

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Sections of Boston were engulfed in smoke on Tuesday evening, resulting from an electrical fire. A transformer burst into flames at 40 Dalton Street, across from a parking garage at the Back Bay Hilton. About 21,000 customers, mostly in the Back Bay, were without electricity.
Arthur Petron—The Tech
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Pockets of the Back Bay were still without power Wednesday evening, resulting from a transformer fire on Tuesday. Many venues in the Prudential Center used generators for electricity, but others were shut down. About 4,000 customers still remained without power Thursday evening, down from the 21,000 originally affected.
Christopher A. Maynor—The Tech
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In addition to the electrical fire on Tuesday, an unrelated brush fire also erupted on Sunday afternoon. This fire was along the sides of the Muddy River near Fenway and was promptly put out by firefighters. Smoke covered the Boston skyline.
Manohar Srikanth—The Tech

The Boston skyline went dark Tuesday evening after a major transformer failure in Boston’s Back Bay, causing a three-alarm fire that destroyed the parking garage of the Back Bay Hilton and left over 21,000 people without power. The outage left large swaths of Boston dark; from Kenmore and the CITGO sign all the way to the Public Gardens. MIT fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs) lost power from Tuesday night until late Wednesday or Thursday evening. As of press time, NStar, the power company, reports that most of Boston has had power restored though the lights; the Prudential Center was the last skyscraper to regain power at 11 p.m. All living groups have had their power restored except Sigma Nu and Fenway House.

Seventeen FSILGs across the river lost power on Tuesday evening along with the rest of the Boston area, said Marlena Martinez Love, assistant dean for FSILGs. Over 400 students in affected living groups were invited to campus if they needed a place to stay for the night. The Housing Office keeps a list of spare rooms and has a number of cots reserved for emergency purposes, said Dennis Collins, Director of Housing.

“If a student wanted to use rooms on campus, they were able to contact the dean on call,” Collins said, “No one did.”

Housing sent each FSILG an email with instructions of what to do during the outage. Suggestions included staying away from open flames, checking the refrigerator for rotten food, and finding accommodations on campus.

All brothers at Nu Delta stayed on campus during the power outage. They lost power from Tuesday evening until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

“None of us stayed in the house except the RA,” said Christian M. Londono ’14, vice president of Nu Delta, “We’re going through the food tomorrow — nothing was damaged thankfully — but there’s a lot of food we’re going to throw out.”

The brothers of Delta Tau Delta (DTD) chose to stay in their house for the evening.

“It was pretty fun, we just hung out,” said Patrick K. Marx ’13, president of DTD, “We had candles and stuff, and played board games.” Students returned to MIT to do homework, he said, but otherwise were “pretty self-sufficient.”

Phi Kappa Theta (PKT) was out of power for two days, from when the blackout first began on Tuesday evening until 9 p.m. on Thursday.

“Not much changed,” in the daily life of the fraternity, said Owen C. Derby ’12, PKT president, “Most people used friends on campus to shower, and did work on campus. Most would come back late at night to sleep.” The house was warm enough, he explained, that “we didn’t have to worry about temperature.”

Derby says it was split “half and half” between brothers who stayed at the house and those who stayed with friends on campus. Their biggest concern was to make sure the plumbing worked, and to throw out the rotting food from the refrigerator. “The fridge was just about to restocked today anyway,” Derby said. Brothers had to “fend for themselves” foodwise during the outage, some went out or to dorm dining, said Derby. There was “no food at the house.”

Similarly, Delta Upsilon had brothers go to MIT “to charge laptops and take showers,” but mostly felt like they “didn’t need too much help from MIT,” said Chad A. Bean ’14, the risk manager of the house. On the bright side, he said, “our freezer was well insulated, and we instructed people not to open it for the time being, so none of the coldness escaped and the food was fine.”

Had the power outage been more severe and long term, Collins said, MIT has systems in place to work with FSILGs. “MIT has an Emergency Operation Center on campus,” said Collins, “If there is an emergency, they reach out. [For this incident] we did not activate emergency operations.” The issue was resolved “between the FSILGs and the residential staff,” he said.

Using the emergency system would entail more close work between the housing office and FSILGs. “We would come together and try to come up with some options for the students if they did need housing,” Collins said,”We have a list of empty rooms, bedding, and cots available to set up somewhere in a large function space if they needed someplace to sleep overnight.”

A similar incident to this one was the water outage in Boston in May of 2010, when a water-main break contaminated the water in Boston. At that time, “we did work together with [the emergency center],” said Collins, “and made operations for water to be delivered [to fraternities].”

As the power is restored to the previously affected areas, the housing office remains confident that the situation is under control. “We are closely monitoring the situation and have maintained ongoing contact with impacted groups,” said Love in an email to The Tech.

Effect on Boston

The outage has affected all business and residences in the area. Food inspectors have been examining restaurants, ensuring that they throw out spoiled food. Shops were unable to function, and the Hynes Convention Center canceled its events for the duration of the outage. Police patrolled Massachusetts Avenue and other busy streets due to the absence of street lights. The Massachusetts Turnpike had Exit 22 closed, prohibiting cars from exiting into Copley Square and the Prudential Center, where electric repair work was being done.

The problematic transformer was in the Scotia Street substation, near the parking garage of the Back Bay Hilton. The station has two transformers, one of which was unharmed. NStar workers hope to have “normal operation” starting by next week, said Tom May, the chief executive officer of NStar, in an interview with The Boston Globe.

The cause of the outage was a connector failure between the high voltage transmission system and the substation.

In an interview with the Globe, May said the blowout was a “very unusual event” and a “catastrophic failure” worse than anything he had seen in his 35 years in the field. Over 1000 workers have been on the job restoring power, he said. They have used nearly five miles of cables to install a bypass system.

At a news conference, Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino demanded that NStar absorb the costs incurred by the power outage.

“I want the shareholders to pay for the cost of this accident,” Menino said. “I want the shareholders to pay for the $85,000 in police overtime and for restaurants that have lost their products — and workers should be reimbursed for not being there. The shareholders should pay, not the ratepayers.” He suggested the company open an office in the back bay so people could have an easy access point to file claims. Menino has promised to investigate the origins of the fire, and is planning on creating a panel of independent experts to look into the matter.

Another fire sprung up on Huntington Avenue yesterday afternoon out of a manhole while smoke poured out from two nearby manholes. Firefighters responded to the scene at 3:38 p.m. and reported no injuries. The accident was caused by a “high demand” for electricity, said NStar spokesman Michael Durand to The Boston Herald, which resulted from switching on nearby power. The sudden influx of electricity caused permanent cables to fail, cutting off power to over 1,500 people who had just had their electricity revived.

The fire in Back Bay came two days after a two-alarm forest fire in Fenway. The fire, which burned for 30 minutes, spread ash throughout Boston. The lack of snow this winter and the recent warm weather made the brush particularly dry — creating conditions ripe for fire.