MIT responds as Cambridge is plunged into darkness

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Much of Cambridge was out of power for two hours on Thursday evening. The blackout was believed to be related to a transmission line.
Elijah Mena—The Tech
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A policeman directs traffic in front of 77 Mass. Ave. Traffic was bumper to bumper from the Harvard Bridge to Central Square.
Elijah Mena—The Tech
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Students make their way down a darkened Infinite Corridor Thursday evening after power went out in Cambridge.
Christopher A. Maynor—The Tech
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Nicholas A. Pellegrino ’12, a member of the break dance group Imobilare, performs in Lobby 7 during the blackout. Dancers from the group Constructs also performed. Many people, evacuated in the surrounding buildings, stayed in Lobby 7 during the blackout.
Christopher A. Maynor—The Tech
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Out of the Green Building’s many windows, only a few were still lit after the blackout.
Christopher A. Maynor—The Tech
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A car crash occurred at the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Memorial Drive at approximately 7:30 p.m. on Thursday evening. One lane of traffic was blocked and a police officer directed traffic at the intersection.
Tami Forrester—The Tech
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People overlooking Lobby 7 stand silhouetted against emergency lights.
Christopher A. Maynor—The Tech
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All lights were out in the Student Center during the power outage.
Jessica L. Wass—The Tech
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NStar workers opened a manhole and began work in Central Square.
Jessica L. Wass—The Tech
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A police officer directs traffic on Mass. Ave in Central Square.
Jessica L. Wass—The Tech
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NStar employees did repair work on the electric grid near the Central Square subway station.
Jessica L. Wass—The Tech
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The Infinite Corridor was only partly illuminated during the power outage.
Elijah Mena—The Tech

MIT, Harvard, and the surrounding areas lost power from 4:26 to 6:37 p.m. yesterday. The outage threw the Institute into darkness — classes were canceled, MBTA service was delayed, and police were dispatched to direct traffic. Emergency power remained on in dormitories and around campus.

The problem is thought to be related to a transmission line in the area, said Michael Durand, NStar spokesman, to The Boston Globe yesterday. Nearly 17,000 customers were estimated to be without power.

Around the Institute

All non-essential power was cut around campus. Lights remained on in dormitory hallways and stairwells, though rooms were dark. A number of lights in the Infinite and street lamps around MIT were also off. According to an email from James Reed, the area director for Next House, dining remained open “with limited selections” during the outage, and wifi was available in the dorm.

MIT Medical shut down normal services early and switched to Urgent Care. Diane L. Magnuson, Manger of Diversity and Inclusion for the medical department, said they would have done this anyway at 5 p.m. The MIT Pharmacy, which usually closes at 7 p.m., also shut down early because of the outage. Besides the early closures, everything was running smoothly, she said.

Technology Children’s Center Stata and the other daycare facilities around campus have backup generators that were in service yesterday evening. Parents came to pick up their children early, and the daycares did not experience any problems.

Hundreds of students wandered about the Infinite, sitting in the few lit corners and frantically working on their slowly-dying laptops. Many chose to watch the impromptu shows, such as the crop of dancers who spontaneously appeared in Lobby 7 around 5:30 p.m. The MIT Chamber Music Society was singing in Lobby 7 around 4:45 p.m. When asked if the outage was good for business, they laughed “I think so,” said Anthony Q. Thomas ’14. “No one is in class.”

Indeed, classes were canceled across all of MIT. The 6.867 (Machine Learning) evening test was canceled, though others, like 10.302 (Transport processes) were held at the last minute. 3.091 (Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry), which is slated to have a midterm today, had its review session moved to 8-102 so students could prepare in spite of the outage. Dozens of students crammed into the glass-walled Course 3 lab while their peers milled about outside. Some classes and activities with start times after 7 p.m. — like MITSO — still met as normal. A number of PE classes and varsity practices were canceled as the Z Center remained dark. In addition, W20 was evacuated and locked soon after the power went out.

Justin Cheung ’16 was asleep when the power cut. He is one of the students who has the 3.091 exam today. “I wanted to study,” he said, “but none of the printers were working, so I spent time copying pdfs from my friend by hand. And then ten minutes after I was done, the power came back.”

Steven Jens M. Jorgensen ’14 was in 2.005 (Thermal Fluids Engineering I) when everything went dark. Students pulled out their cell phones and some flashlights so lecture could continue. “It was interesting to see people come out of their houses because nothing was going on inside,” he said after class.

According to a month-old email from Dennis Collins, director of residential life and dining, during an emergency MIT’s cogeneration plant would initially go down, activating the emergency generators. While the cogeneration plant should be able to restart within a few hours, those in the northwest area of campus who do not rely on the cogeneration plant may be on emergency power for a longer time.

John DiFava, director of facilities and chief of police, mentioned that Cogen was having issues yesterday morning, though the nature of these issues was unclear.

When asked for comment by The Tech, a crackly voice from the outside intercom of Cogen said that they were “having a plant shutdown right now,” and that they had no time to talk.

A text message alerting community members of the power outage was sent out at 5:26 p.m. yesterday. Nate Nickerson, director of MIT communications, said that MIT’s main goal was “responding to entrapments.”

“Life and safety is our top priority,” he said, citing people trapped in elevators and other locations. An elevator maintenance worker was seen opening an elevator in the student center shortly before evacuations around 4:30 p.m.

Katie Barker, a lecturer in English Language Studies, was in the middle of teaching when the power went out. She had an emergency light in the room, so the class continued though she canceled her later evening class.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s strange because there was no storm or anything. It’s like the apocalypse.”

Kendall Square

Kendall Square was inundated with evening commuters trying to get home. Many travelers were debating between the subway, the bus, or a cab.

“I can take the bus home, so I was hoping that wouldn’t be so bad,” said Mario Tate, who works in Kendall Square. “But traffic is horrible.”

Although police were actively directing traffic at several intersections along Mass. Ave, there were non-controlled intersections (such as at the Landsdowne St. and Mass. Ave stoplight) and several accidents that further added to the normal rush hour traffic congestion.

Alan Smith, the general manager at the Marriott Hotel in Kendall, said that the hotel had generators powering emergency lighting in hallways, stairwells, and the lobby. They were passing out glowsticks for guests to use in their rooms.

“Guests are very calm,” he said, “As soon as we know what’s happening I plan on making an announcement over the PA system so that guests are informed.”

The Clover food truck saw an increase in customers during the outage. Shawn Salzberg, a second year master’s student in the Media Lab, was waiting for his dinner near the truck. “I was in lab working on my computer when it kind of started to buzz and then the lights went out,” he said. “This is kind of epic.”

“I planned on cooking tonight, but now with no power I learned an important survival tip — when the electricity goes out the food trucks are still open,” he explained.

Outage origins

Rumors swirled about a deer who had been struck near the Kendall Tunnel and caused the trouble.

“I heard some crazy story about a deer being run over by the train but I find that hard to be true,” said Lionel Mathelin, and MIT employee in Course 16.

The rumor, which appears to have originated on Twitter, seems to be false. Dan Riviello, Cambridge police spokesman, said to Cambridge Local “We’re getting a report that it’s a transformer that blew in Central Square. We spoke to someone from the Red Line and no one said anything about a deer.”

@MBTAdeer, a Twitter feed supposedly from the dead deer, surfaced on Thursday night. As of this writing, it has over 200 followers.

Two Green Line trains did collide yesterday morning at the Boylston Street station. Three dozen people were taken to hospitals, and nearly 200 passengers were estimated to be on board. Neither car was derailed, and no heavy damage was visible. This incident is not believed to be related to the power outage.

Students should call the MIT police at 617-253-1212 if they are having any safety issues. Check The Tech’s storify for more information on this topic:

Sara Hess, Deborah Chen, Anne Cai, Stan Gill, John A. Hawkinson, Greg Steinbrecher, and Bruno B. F. Faviero contributed reporting to this article.