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Plug Pulled On San Francisco

The city by the Bay was transformed into the city of no lights Tuesday morning when a massive power outage ground San Francisco to a halt. A construction crew fixing lines accidentally knocked out 36 power substations, pulling the plug on the city during the morning rush hour.

It was 7 hours before power was restored and life returned to normalcy.

Benjamin Coe was one of those whose high-tech world came to a screeching halt.

Coe's telephone didn't work, and his cellular phone batteries were dead. He blew an important online business meeting because he couldn't log on. And when he dashed out to get in his car for a trip to Chicago, his electric garage door opener just clicked softly in his hand.

"I had no idea how much I relied on electricity until today," said Coe, a software sales manager. "Ten years ago this wouldn't have been any problem at all."

He was not the only one frustrated Tuesday, when the construction crew's mistake led to a blackout that affected nearly one million people. Office workers were trapped in high-rise elevators and trains. The city's cable cars halted, and incoming planes had to be diverted from the airport.

Power went out across the 49-square-mile city as well as several suburbs to the south at 8:17 a.m. It took more than seven hours before electricity was restored to everyone.

A construction crew forgot to remove two grounding rods after completing maintenance on a substation switchboard, causing a blowout and triggering a chain reaction that knocked two generators offline, said Gordon Smith, president of Pacific Gas & Electric.

Since three of the five lines powering San Francisco converge there, substations throughout the city went down. Sabotage caused a similar blackout 14 months ago, leaving 250,000 people in the dark for more than three hours.

Mayor Willie Brown declared a state of emergency, allowing Municipal Railway passengers to ride buses, trolleys, and trains free of charge until midnight. And the deadline for city property taxes was extended a day, to Friday.

One death was related to the blackout, that of a 73-year-old woman struck by a truck in a downtown intersection without an operating traffic signal. But there were no reports of other major accidents or of looting.

"I was here for the earthquake in '89," said Michael McDonnell of Galway, Ireland. "What I can't get over is how exceptionally civilized everybody is. Dublin would be in chaos."

For people downtown, it meant a lost morning of work and a series of inconveniences such as dead ATM machines and cafes unable to brew their favorite coffees. Dozens of trains got stuck in tunnels under the city, forcing passengers to be led out on foot.

Streets were clogged with jerky stop-and-go traffic because stoplights were knocked out. Police and meter maids directed traffic at major intersections, and motorists had to navigate around powerless trolleys.

The Pacific Stock Exchang in San Francisco went dark, but trading continued at the companion facility in Los Angeles. Restaurants, stores, and other businesses closed for hours.

"It's going to be more of a hassle to go home than to stay," said Cindy Oliver said as she sat on the floor next to a Christmas tree in the darkened lobby of a downtown building. "We're getting paid to have fun."