A small fire for warmth leaves city dark, chilly Accidental spread of homeless man's fire causes power outage

December 12, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Frank D. Roylance, Brenda J. Buote, John Rivera and Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

Shoppers had to use flashlights to navigate darkened shops in the Rotunda. Johns Hopkins students rushed to save frozen bacteria specimens. Researchers from around the world were suddenly cut off from Hubble space telescope data.

All this because a homeless man trying to keep warm lighted a fire Tuesday night that knocked out power across a broad swath of Baltimore.

From Druid Hill Park to Roland Park and from Park Heights to Waverly, daily routines were altered yesterday, inconveniencing and aggravating thousands of residents and workers in dozens of Baltimore neighborhoods.

"It is strange that this one act could influence so many people," said Arthur J. Slusark, a spokesman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

The unidentified homeless man had set up camp under the Jones Falls Expressway near Cold Spring Lane and set a fire that spread to his belongings tucked under a thick bundle of electric cable 300 yards from a BGE substation.

Flames burned through thick black plastic piping and severed nine cables responsible for getting electricity to North and West Baltimore, including Mondawmin, Woodberry, Roland Park and parts of Charles Village. Power, cut off about 11: 40 p.m. Tuesday, was restored by 6 a.m. yesterday to all but 1,000 of the 22,000 BGE customers.

Fire investigators said they questioned acquaintances of the homeless man but had no plans to charge him because the fire was an accident. And though BGE normally seeks restitution in such cases, "you have to be realistic about what happened in this situation," Slusark said.

The outage forced Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Western High to close, keeping 2,500 students at home. It caused few problems for homeowners other than missed wake-up alarms and frigid indoor temperatures.

"I went to bed at 10 o'clock and set the alarm for 6: 15," said Greg Pickett, 28, who lives near Mondawmin Mall and was 45 minutes late to his job at a nursing home. "I woke up at 7: 30. When I woke up, all my clocks were blinking."

But the blackout hit some North Baltimore businesses hard, particularly the Rotunda Shopping Center and the nearby shops at Tower Square, a group of stores on West 41st Street near Falls Road. They were the last BGE customers to get power restored yesterday evening.

At Tower Square, there were no videos to rent at Blockbuster, no drugs to be had at the Rite Aid. "I can tighten your eyeglasses, but I can't adjust them because my heater is electric," said United Optical's Jerry Goldberg.

The Dunkin Donuts was dark, but Zita Patel stood dutifully behind the counter, bundled in a blue parka and adding up orders on the back of a napkin.

Standing in front of a full array of Boston creams, sugar crullers and glazed doughnuts, she listened to a list of orders she couldn't fill. "The customers keep asking, but no, I don't have any coffee," she said.

Up the street, the Rotunda was dark. Customers in a card shop used flashlights to do their holiday shopping. "Once you get around this time of the year, it doesn't take much to stop you," said Twiliah Lucia, an assistant property manager for the Rotunda.

Giant Food used dry ice to keep produce cold until a generator could be trucked in from its headquarters in Landover. By 11 a.m., the store was packed, the only complaint coming from a woman irritated because the bakery oven was down: "We had to get some bread that was a day old."

At Johns Hopkins University, most of the campus buildings west of Charles Street were without power, including several dorms filled with 750 students. Most were in study breaks, between classes and final exams.

But several hundred pre-med and biology students with tests yesterday were studying at the library at Gilman Hall when the lights went out. Their exams were delayed from morning until mid-afternoon, forcing those who pulled all-nighters to remain up longer then they had expected.

"The bio students are a pretty high-stress bunch already," said Corina Scott, a sophomore at the university. "A lot of them started flipping out when the electricity went out. Some of the kids on my floor got really upset. They were saying they wanted to take the exam in the dark -- anything to avoid the delay. It was crazy."

But the biggest problem at Hopkins was with sensitive experiments. Many labs are staffed 24 hours a day, and spokesman Emil Venere said workers were scurrying about with dry ice trying to preserve "months of work."

In one case, bacteria samples that are supposed to be kept at -112 degrees rose to 32 degrees when a freezer stopped working. "Researchers don't know yet what they lost," Venere said.

At the Space Telescope Science Institute adjacent to the Hopkins campus, 450 employees arrived to find the building dark. But the effect of the outage spread far beyond the institute.

Spokesman Ray Villard said the Hubble telescope was never endangered because its operations are controlled from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. But the computer network and data archives at the institute, which are accessed by scientists here and at computers around the world, were shut down and might not come back on line until today.

"Your computer and the network are kind of like your lifeblood," Villard said. "It's like having your water supply cut off."

Most took the inconvenience in stride. Chip Clevenger, denied coffee at the Tower Square Dunkin Donuts, settled for a honey-dipped pastry instead.

"What are you going to do about it?" he said.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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