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.”