A major power outage in downtown Seattle started about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, with several buildings and traffic signals without power during the hour-long outage.
Downtown Seattle lost power for about an hour mid-Wednesday, killing traffic signals in about 60 percent of the neighborhood and trapping people in the elevators of various buildings in the downtown core. Seattle City Light is still unsure of the cause.
The outage began just after 11:30 a.m. Seattle City Light initially estimated power would be out for a few hours, but then got it mostly restored by around 12:30 p.m. Connie McDougall of Seattle City Light warned power could go out briefly for small pockets of the downtown area during the restoration process.
Seattle firefighters made 15 elevator rescues and responded to 10 automatic fire alarms. Firefighters typically respond to elevator rescues without using lights and sirens, but they were authorized to use lights and sirens today.
911 service was not interrupted.
No customer count is available yet, but 12,000 electric meters were affected, McDougall said.
“Clearly, because it was such a large outage, there were many thousands affected,” she said. “In terms of cause, all we know at this point is that crews were working in a substation, they detected an outage, immediately reported it and reported the problem.” City Light crews are investigating.
McDougall said around noon that there had been an equipment failure at the Massachusetts Street substation downtown. A downtown outage is “rare,” she said. Power cables and other equipment are underground downtown, which makes the system less vulnerable, she said.
Traffic around downtown was gridlocked during the outage. Buses were especially impacted because traffic lights were dark, creating four-way stops.
Seattle police said they were not aware of any collisions as a result of the outage.
Trolley buses were unaffected because the trolley wires still had power, said Jeff Switzer of King County Metro.
“But, they were all stuck behind the traffic lights. So where traffic was bad, bus service was facing delays,” he said.
ST Express routes 512, 522, 545, 554, 577/578, and 590/594 were delayed, according to Sound Transit. Link light rail was temporarily interrupted.
Switzer said the downtown transit tunnel was closed for six minutes, but even small closures can cause substantial delays. “We’re getting back to normal,” he said. “Hopefully, everything will be smooth sailing heading into the commute.”
“We started to shut down the downtown Seattle transit tunnel when they lost power to Pioneer Square Station and University Station to some of the backup emergency ventilation fans,” said Bruce Gray, of Sound Transit. “They started shutting down the tunnel for 5 minutes before power came back and the trains are moving again.”
“We’re getting back to normal now,” Gray said at about 12:40 p.m. “The buses are going to have some rolling delays as we get traffic moving through downtown.”
Ironically, the Seattle City Light offices in the Seattle Municipal Tower also lost power.
“We have no power here, so we’re tweeting off our telephones,” McDougall said around noon.
No Seattle public schools were affected.
Barbara Serrano, a prosecutor with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, was writing an email at her desk on the 18th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower when “all of a sudden, everything went out. The office got dark, the hallways got dark.”
She walked down 18 flights of stairs and headed to lunch in the International District with five other prosecutors.
“We can’t do any work right now,” Serrano said. “The phones work, but the computers don’t. And attorneys are pretty much helpless without their computers.”
She was happy to leave early for lunch, but not happy that she wasn’t able to finish her work.
Was there anything about the blackout that worried her?
“I don’t want to walk back up 18 floors of stairs …”
The power went out at City Hall, but emergency generators kicked on, so lights and elevators there were working.
King County Deputy Prosecutor Ian Ith had walked out of the King County Administration Building with a friend to grab lunch when the power went out around 11:30 a.m. His colleagues, who work in the King County Courthouse across the street, began leaving the building and gathering outside.
“All the generators kicked in, so there’s lights, just no computers,” which are needed to create a record of any court proceeding, said Ith, a former Seattle Times reporter and editor.
Ith returned to the Administration Building, climbed the stairs to his office on the eighth floor, and grabbed his laptop. Planning to work from home for the rest of the day, Ith hopped a bus but didn’t get very far.
By 12:20 p.m., his bus had made it to Fourth Avenue and Union Street, only a few blocks from where his ride started. All the street lights were out, so each intersection was being treated as a four-way stop, he said.
“Well, as your phone call was coming in, all of our lights have come on,” said Paul Sherfey, a spokesman for King County Superior Court.
He said power was out for about 45 minutes, and jurors and others were escorted from the building. “We’re fortunate it occurred during the lunch hour,” Sherfey said.
Alain Tangalan, chef at Flame Cafe across from the courthouse on Third Avenue, said power came back around 12:30 p.m. He said it was a bit difficult to pick back up cooking because people were hungry while the power was out.