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UMBC Remains Closed After Transformer Explosion

About 200 students have been housed in a residence hall powered by a generator.

UMBC  officials struggled to restore electrical power to a campus plunged into darkness by .

While environmental work crews removed sod and gravel contaminated by coolant oil released over a wide area by the explosion, contractors at the scene labored on equipment to get the university’s power system back online.

Two nearly simultaneous transformer explosions occurred at around 8:40 p.m. Thursday. The larger of the incidents produced a fireball that rose in the sky above the campus police station. A second transformer near the university’s athletic field also exploded.

Students who were on campus at the time say that the lights flickered before the explosion. Reports over Twitter and through Arbutus Patch comments indicated electrical grid problems that may have been more widespread, with electrical problems noted in Howard County and Catonsville.

Rachel Lightly, spokesperson for Constellation Energy, said the failure Thursday evening was due to UMBC’s equipment and was probably unrelated to other reports of electrical failures.

However, the incident damaged Constellation Energy equipment that left two unidentified off-campus commercial clients without electricity. Lightly said utility crews were still working to restore power to those commercial clients Friday night.

Power had not been restored at UMBC by Friday evening, and may not be for another day or more, sources told Arbutus Patch.

At around 6:30 p.m. Friday, UMBC police chief Mark Sparks issued a statement saying that the campus was closed. “We hope to be able to reopen by Sunday evening,” he said.

Deputy police chief Paul Dillon said an emergency task force was scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to plan how to deal with the crisis.

Although UMBC is not in session, about 400 students and interns were living in apartments and dorms on campus.

About half of the students were encouraged to find accommodations off campus, and the 200 or so who chose to remain on campus have been relocated to one residence hall that is being powered by a generator.

Reports from witnesses and employees who asked not to be named suggested that UMBC had been experiencing electrical issues for some time prior to the transformer explosion. The campus is installing new electrical equipment related to the construction of a new performing arts center.

A source on campus told Arbutus Patch that on May 31 air conditioning units in three unoccupied residence halls were turned off to reduce demand on the school’s electrical system.

A university employee who asked not to be identified said the cause of the incident--and questions about its possible relation to new construction or pre-existing grid problems--will not be determined until digital records of the power system are reviewed.

“It’s an ongoing investigation to see what happened,” the employee said. “We can’t pinpoint it to any one thing until it’s all analyzed.”

Dillon said nothing about the incident was suspicious. “We don’t expect any foul play or tampering of equipment.”

The campus police department remained occupied and operational throughout the incident.  A dispatcher remained on duty as the lights flickered and the emergency generator kicked on, Dillon said.

UMBC police, who had been mainly based at the Lansdowne High School commencement at the Retriever Activity Center on the opposite side of campus, responded to the scene within minutes and used extinguishers to put out the fire.

Despite initial concerns that emergency vehicles were delayed by parking lot gates unable to swing open because of the power failure, the standard procedure in case of emergency is to break the gate arm–as emergency vehicles did Thursday evening.

“We physically break [the gate arm] off during power outages,” Dillon said. “It’s a cost of doing business.”

Audrey June 04, 2011 at 03:04 AM
The residents living in Walker Ave Apartments (myself included) were told we were being locked out of the apartments and must either leave campus or move to Susquehanna dorms. My roommate and I were told at 5pm that we must leave by 7 pm. The RAs told us that the locks would be changed tonight so no one can re-enter Walker Ave Apartments until power is restored. The lockout time was later changed to 9 pm. All information we received was from RAs that knocked on our door. We received the text messages that were sent, but they only said that the power is out and then that campus is closed. The texts also said to go online for more information, but without power that is very difficult. Signs were posted about campus being closed and dry ice availability for residents. Without access to the information on here, we knew nothing. We saw the fireball, and the scorch marks on the ground. Then the next day we still had no power and were kicked out of our homes. It has all been rather scary. Thank you for the information.
Kyle June 04, 2011 at 03:25 AM
Agreed that I have received more information here than from UMBC. All I've received from UMBC are a couple texts (one at 5am) that say the power would be restored shortly - clearly untrue. This has all been very poorly managed on UMBC's part. I'm also a WAA resident and will be spending the next two nights in a hotel, probably on my own dollar, due to having such short notice that I would have to vacate. Thanks to the author of these stories for keeping us updated.
Paul Dillon June 04, 2011 at 04:30 PM
Kyle the verbage of the text alerts sent related to the power outage are below: 6/2 at 11p.m.: "Campus wide power outage this evening on campus. Crews working on restoring power. Updates to follow." 6/3 at 5:10a.m.: "The UMBC campus will be CLOSED on Friday, June 3rd, due to a power outage." 6/3 at 6:10p.m.: "The campus has no power and remains CLOSED. Hope to reopen Sunday. For more information go to www.umbc.edu or my.umbc.edu." No where in any of these texts does it say or even hint that power would be restored shortly. I should know what they said since I personally sent them. Deputy Chief of Polie Paul Dillon
Kyle June 04, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Paul, you're right that the texts didn't use the exact words I said, but "Crews working on restoring power" didn't exactly give me the impression that it would take 3 days. Power outages don't typically last that long so my impression from that text was that the power outage wouldn't last that long. The updates that followed gave no estimates at all. I just feel like it would've been nice to have a little more warning that this was going to be an extended event. I had only a couple hours to figure out what I was going to do and then pack up and leave. I understand some of this was beyond UMBC's control, but this was a serious event that actually affected the lives of those living on campus. Thanks for your response.
Kyle June 04, 2011 at 07:17 PM
Correction: "The updates that followed gave no estimates at all." I mean until 6:10 pm on Friday, which was just a couple hours before we were supposed to be out of our residences.
Audrey June 04, 2011 at 08:58 PM
How will the information about when we are allowed back in our apartments be sent out. No information was sent out relating to us having to vacate, so how will we know we can return?
Travis June 05, 2011 at 01:52 PM
Restoring power from such a failure takes time, and it's difficult to estimate. While the obvious damage is the transformer, you have to find out what caused that so it doesn't happen again before turning on power. It's also sometimes difficult to find spares of some equipment, as this stuff is generally not kicking around your local wal-mart. My facility experienced a shorted feeder line, and it took 72 hours to repair the bad cable. We had BGE on site in less than a half hour from the start of my incident.

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