The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Exploding transformer cuts power Sunday

By Matt Day and Amy Ledig, News Editors

Students found their homework and other plans disrupted by a power outage Sunday night. At 6:35 p.m. lights across campus went out.The outage was caused when a transformer along Snelling Avenue by the Macalester Athletic and Recreation Center caught fire and exploded. Power was restored by a team from Xcel Energy at 8:10 p.m., and students were allowed to return to the dorms around 8:20 p.m.

Director of Security Terry Gorman said that Xcel Energy told him the explosion was caused by increased amounts of salt in the air and that the conditions “got right for the transformer to arc, spark and blow up.”

The Campus Center and the Library were the only buildings to remain open. Limited power was restored in the both buildings seconds after the outage as both buildings’ backup generators began running.

Emergency lights illuminated the halls of the dorms and academic buildings, but Bigelow Hall Director Michael Klitzke said that an evacuation of the dorms was ordered because the lights’ battery power would run out quickly.

Residential Assistants were informed of the situation before 7 p.m. and began passing the information along to residents to evacuate the residence halls and assemble in the Campus Center.

The library was closed during the evacuation of the dorms because of reports of smoke in the building.

“Someone said we had to leave because the lights were out on the first floor, but it [was] pretty obvious that all the lights were out,” said Chris Portero Paff ’11, one of the students who had to evacuate the library. He added that he had heard there was smoke but had not seen anything.

“We think it was just the generator kicking in,” Gorman said. The library reopened when power to campus was restored. Gorman said that security closed down the library because they thought there was smoke, but that upon further examination, no evidence was found. He now thinks that it may have been caused by dampers in the library opening and releasing warm air that appeared to be smoke.

St. Paul police and firefighters blocked off the section of Snelling Avenue between Goodrich and St. Clair avenues. Curious student who flocked to see the destroyed transformer were turned back by police.

Police left the scene about 45 minutes after the explosion when it became clear that the power lines presented no immediate danger to pedestrians or vehicles. A repair crew from Xcel Energy arrived shortly thereafter.

Macalester’s new emergency text message alert system had its first real test, although the message telling students that the power was out arrived more than an hour after the initial failure. The message told students that the residence halls were closed and instructed them to go to the Campus Center.

Dean of Students Jim Hoppe was one of several college administration and staff members who came to the Campus Center following the outage.

Hoppe reported hearing three loud bangs when the power went out. He said that the power was out at his house one mile from the college on Snelling. and that the outage continued as many as two miles away from the school.

About half of the lights in the Campus Center remained on, powered by the generator, but there was no other electricity or wireless internet. The smoke-clearing hood on the grill station of Café Mac was also left without power, sending smoke throughout the first floor of the building.

Students asked to leave the residence halls joined those already camped out in the Campus Center, gathering in Café Mac or other parts of the building. Some brought pillows, preparing for what could have been a long evening. One group of students on the second floor passed the time knitting, while another juggled in Café Mac.

“Café Mac’s freaking out their food is going to spoil,” said Katie Whitmore ’10, one of the students manning the information desk in the Campus Center at the time of the outage.

Students remained in relatively good spirits throughout the evening, with many saying they hoped that classes would be canceled if the power were not restored.

Members of Scotch Tape, one of the college’s acapella groups, gave an impromptu performance on the Mary Gwen Owen stage to entertain the crown.

“This is like ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘Titanic,’ where they know the world is ending but they play music to keep you calm,” joked Cecily Castle ’10.

Residential Life was thrown into chaos by the outage. RA Isaac Sparling ’10 said that he did not know of any concrete plan if the outage had continued into the night.

MCSG President Franz Meyer ’09, who had been in communication with Gorman, said that even if power was not restored for hours, classes would have continued as usual Monday morning.

Many students took the time to continue working on homework and chat with friends.

Abby Seeskin ’10 was settled down in the upper level of the Campus Center debating her next move.

“I’m wondering whether I should be doing homework or postponing,” she said. “I was going to do homework anyways.”

By the time the lights came back on, students were ready to get back to their rooms but were initially held back by RAs and other staff members, who said they could not reopen the residence halls until Residential Life could confirm that the return of power had not caused any fires in the buildings.

When students were finally given the all clear to return to the dorms, there was audible complaining about having to go to class as normal on Monday. Even with the lights back on, more than one student slipped and fell on the icy sidewalks heading back, an unfortunate end to a chaotic evening.

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