Relief instead of chaos greets Y2K

Marylanders' anxiety dissolves as utilities, computers function

January 01, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

For most of the thousands of Marylanders who stood watch at computer screens, on street corners, in hospitals and in emergency command centers throughout the state, last night was a welcome bore.

Despite fears of crashing computers and collapsing governments, power hummed. Telephones and ATMs worked. Trains ran. Water flowed.

At the new State Emergency Operations Center in Reisterstown, where 75 officials gathered to monitor Y2K problems across the state, the lights snapped off after midnight. But it was only a joke.

"Let me thank you for a terrific job on the biggest nonevent that ever happened," Lt. Gen. James Fretterd, adjutant general for the Maryland National Guard, told the group.

Earlier, emergency officials were so idle they tossed around a doll shaped like a green bug, with a T-shirt emblazoned with "Y2K." Every time the bug landed on the floor, it made a crashing sound. It was the only thing crashing.

On Falls Road in Hampden, New Year's revelers stood on their front steps yipping as fireworks exploded on the horizon. Amid the hugs and handshakes, one man hollered: "Everything works, yeah!"

All of Baltimore's light rail trains were halted shortly before midnight for 20 minutes for safety reasons. None experienced any trouble. "Everything seems to be fine," said Derek A. Jones, chief of light rail maintenance, shortly after inspecting a northbound train with three passengers, headed for Lutherville.

Still, Y2K had some effect. Concerns about safety may have cut attendance at public New Year's celebrations across the state. Police estimated that 175,000 people came to see fireworks at the Inner Harbor, an average-sized crowd. Officials had earlier predicted record attendance. "It's much, much less than we expected," said Baltimore Police Lt. Osborne B. McCarter.

Fewer than anticipated also showed up for the annual First Night Annapolis festivities. Annapolis Police Lt. Robert Beans said attendance appeared lower than last year's estimated crowd of 15,000.

Mass Transit Administration Spokesman Frank B. Fulton said ridership on light rail and the Metro subway system was much lighter than the 10,000 people expected yesterday evening. "We're probably down 50 percent," Fulton said.

Chris Johnston had trouble peddling his souvenirs at the Inner Harbor. "With all this millennium, Y2K stuff, everybody is staying home," he said. "It is hard being a street vendor."

Mark Zinn of Dundalk was among those who showed up at the harbor early. "I mean, I know there has been all this terrorism hype, but I think this is only going to be a burp in the road," he said.

By midnight, only a few mishaps had marred the celebration. Three people fell off the harbor's promenade and into the water. Two were rescued unhurt. One, a 65-year-old man, was taken to Mercy Medical Center, where he was listed in good condition. Police said he may have been intoxicated.

If Mayor Martin O'Malley was disappointed by the turnout, he didn't show it. "This is a tremendously optimistic time throughout the world, and here in Baltimore, the greatest city in America," he told the crowd shortly before midnight.

Some Baltimore residents followed the dangerous city tradition of shooting firearms into the air to celebrate the new year. Police said a man fired numerous rounds from an assault rifle into an electrical transformer in Northeast Baltimore shortly after 9 p.m. That blew a fuse, knocking out power to 53 people, authorities said. A repair crew replaced the fuse and restored power by 10: 20 p.m.

Statewide, computer problems were considered a bigger threat to electrical supplies. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which serves 1.7 million customers in Maryland, had spent $46 million over the past three years to make sure its computers wouldn't crash when the date changed. They didn't.

"We have had no Y2K-related problems at all on either the gas or electric side," BGE spokeswoman Kristine Martin said early this morning.

Bell Atlantic feared the "Mother's Day effect" -- a jamming of lines right around midnight from too many people picking up their phones to make calls or just listen for a dial tone. But that never happened. "I think it's safe to say that throughout our territory, everything is functioning normally," said Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette.

Neither did the Baltimore metropolitan water system seem effected. "Everything's working like a charm right now," said George G. Balog, director of Baltimore's Department of Public Works.

One of the worst Y2K glitches in the country was an inconvenience to gamblers. Eight hundred of Delaware's slot machines shut down at three race tracks Thursday.

The state's slots are controlled by a central computer that sends out its commands 72 hours in advance. "They got the command and read it as Jan. 1, 1900. So they went down," said Wayne Lemons, Delaware's lottery director. "We were assured they were Y2K compliant." Most machines were back up yesterday, but the failure exasperated track officials.

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