July 05, 2008

A Big Boom, Then Silence

I know lots people who work at the U of M, not just the ones who work with my husband. Tuesday morning, one of them sends me an e-mail saying, "Wow, did you hear about the fire in WBOB?" This is the West Bank Office Building, the building in which my husband works. Everyone knows my husband works there, since his location next to the bridge means we give details to people who want a better picture of how the rebuilding is going.

I haven't heard any such thing, and I immediately hit the local news sites. Nothing. Front page at the U. Nothing. Google's local feed. Nothing. I shoot an email back asking for details. I haven't heard from anyone who works in the building, which is a good sign, right? Nobody expects me to have heard anything they need to reassure me about. Or so I'm hoping. Either way, if they have work to do, I don't want to interrupt.

I try to do a little work myself, but between sending and checking email and the news, not much is getting accomplished. Apparently the person who sent me the original email has abandoned their computer--or they want me to suffer, but I'm trying to be generous, knowing I'm a wee bit overwrought. Everyone else has evaporated. Still nothing.

Finally, I give in and call my husband. "So, what's this about a fire at WBOB?"

It turns out fireball is more accurate. A transformer outside the building took itself out most spectacularly. Everybody is fine, and he's working from a remote location to keep the most essential systems up. He's busy. Has to go.

Okay. That's not too bad. They have contingency plans for just this sort of thing. I go back to work. Then, finally, people start forwarding me the information I'd been asking for--emails sent to U students and staff.

From 11:30 a.m.: "At approximately 11:00 a.m. today (July 1), a power line was accidentally cut in the construction zone outside the West Bank Office Building (WBOB), causing a fire. By noon today, the Office of Information Technology will be shutting down the servers in the WBOB location to prevent damage...Access to e-mail is not affected."

From 12:30 p.m. "Due to a power outage at the West Bank Office Building several services have been shut down by OIT. Our connections to the internet, e-mail and calendar systems remains functional."

By 2:30 p.m. we find out that "Some E-Mail users" are affected. I'm guessing the users already knew that and that the message wasn't going to do them much good. The best part of this message, though, is "The new Enterprise Financial System was not affected by the power
outage and was not the cause."

Uh, duh. EFS is a PeopleSoft app. That may make it evil (just sayin', PeopleSoft), but it's not going to give it the power to take out a transformer. Hmm. Sounds like there's some pretty heavy pressure from above to make sure absolutely nothing goes the littlest bit wrong with the EFS implementation, doesn't it?

But I'm all set now, I can kick back and relax and wait for details from my husband. Who doesn't call. Poor thing, I think, I hope he doesn't have to work so late he can't make it to class. Of course, what I don't know is that he got off work early and fell asleep under a tree on campus while listening to his Science Friday podcast. I love him dearly, but....

I found all that out the next morning, when I finally saw him, along with a bunch of details that don't belong in a public blog post. I promise: it's boring technical stuff about how the U's systems work together. I can't share, but unless you're a complete geek, you're not missing much. Instead, I'll leave you a bit from another email I got later on Wednesday, this time from someone who does work in WBOB.

"See that thing in the photo? That's the transformer outside my building. It fucking exploded yesterday, caught fire. This was some truly biblical shit - in my office, the ground done _quaketh_. "

"The fire looks small, doesn't it? That's because the top piece of the transformer got bent upwards by about 45 degrees in the explosion, sort of hiding some of the flames. When I made it down to ground level, and walked by the transformer, the flames were about 12 to 18 inches high. The transformer is oil-cooled, so it had some fuel to burn."

It does look tiny, doesn't it? Awfully small for such a big boom.


Anonymous said...

I have this image of a couple of engineers casing the building back before they moved in there (from Anderson?). Walking around with a clip board taking notes. One of them looks out this window and sees the 1970s era transformer...

"OK, we'll need a plan for when that baby blows... "

"...Right...," the other one scribbles down a few notes...

By the way, now you know exactly how long it takes me to get home from CCE. Just measure the time span between those two emails!!!! (Sorry)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Two hours? In the middle of the day? I'm guessing there were email delays somewhere in there too. But no worries--at least not once I'd called Ben. :)

My understanding is that the new transformer looks just like the old transformer, with the addition of some cooling fins.

Anonymous said...

Well, there was probably a meeting in there somewhere. But with the I35 bridge collapse, the other I35 bridge down to one lane, I36 closed, County Road C under construction, Snelling Northbound down to one lane, and so on, it can take a while to get anywhere.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Okay, I already knew I loved walking to work, but wow! And the roads don't really go your way at the best of times, do they?

Anonymous said...

Holy Crap! You'd think someone could pick up their cell phone and start dialing, at least!

Especially the person who originally sent out the Email to you. Hello? Panic?

I'm glad Ben's OK. I might be tempted to choke him, but at least he was in good condition to do it!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Now, Janie, I just got caught between someone who assumed I knew what was going on and people who didn't know I knew anything was going on. See above for the apology.

Oh, and while he has my cell phone number, I doubt he knows he has it. It's buried in an email, which means he could have responded just as well, and probably much faster, that way.

As soon as I called Ben, I had the most important information. I could have had it sooner if I'd been more willing to interrupt. And I was much more interested in snuggling him than choking him when I saw him. :)

Anonymous said...

"It does look tiny, doesn't it?"...
as do all of these very common, very average, very basic mechanical dysfunctions that the U of MN and all other fascist/police state pandering orgs. blow up into "potential tereriss" activity; bloating the budgets, and violating the sensibilities of Joe and Jane Average until next thing we know, we elect a Bush, or another fear pandering Shiela Wellstone clone....

Stephanie Zvan said...

CMF, between the bridge going down, a mechanical failure a few months ago, and this, the folks in disaster planning are much more worried about unpredictable accidents and aging infrastructure than they are about terrorists. Especially since everyone in that building knows someone who was all too close to the bridge when it fell. Their fears are a bit more realistic than terrorism.

There will likely be some smaller budget items coming out of this, but that has more to do with the fact that equipment in the building hasn't kept up with their changing responsibilities.

JanieBelle said...

I think I'd still milk it for a pair of earrings or something.

...at least a nice dinner out.


Stephanie Zvan said...

Oh, I get nice dinners out, and in, without milking anything. :)

And I can't wear most earrings anyway--metal allergies. Have I mentioned that I'm defective?