Transformer explosion caused electric grid surge, triggered outages across D.C. and Md.


    At right is a utility crew in Charles County fixing what caused Tuesday's massive outage. At left is an Amish man working with a team of horses. (Photo: WJLA/Tom Roussey)

    WASHINGTON (WJLA/AP) - Widespread power outages affected the White House, the Capitol, Smithsonian museums, Metrorail stations, the University of Maryland and other sites across Washington and its Maryland suburbs Tuesday afternoon - all because of an explosion at an electrical station, officials said.

    Many of the outages were brief, but some were longer and forced evacuations. About 8,000 customers in Washington were affected, while about 20,000 lost power in southern Maryland. All power had been restored by late afternoon, utility officials said.

    Homeland security officials in Washington and Maryland cited a transformer explosion at an electrical transfer station about 35 miles southeast of D.C. in Charles County, which is run by the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO). No one was injured, the utility said.

    The mechanical failure occurred shortly before 1 p.m. and caused a surge disrupting the region's power grid. PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in numerous states including D.C. and Maryland, told ABC7 News that several of its generating units tripped and went offline after the explosion.

    White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Homeland Security "indicated they don't currently see a nexus to terrorism or anything like that" in the power grid outages or the explosion that prompted them.

    Earnest also said he was with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office when the power blip occurred at the White House, and they didn't notice anything unusual - possibly because the room is lit by so many windows. The complex quickly went back onto power as backup generators kicked on.

    Power went out at the State Department during the daily press briefing, forcing spokeswoman Marie Harf to finish her comments in the dark, while electricity in the U.S. Capitol building twice shut down briefly - then came back on by way of a generator.

    Metro said rail service continued throughout the region despite the loss of electricity - but 14 of its 91 stations operated on backup power, with dimmer lighting and non-working elevators and escalators.

    University of Maryland officials said their entire College Park campus was affected; classes were cancelled for the day as of 2 p.m. and there were reports of a few students briefly trapped in elevators.

    Smithsonian museums along the National Mall also were impacted. Thousands of tourists were evacuated from the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Anacostia Community Museum. All the museums eventually reopened once power was restored.

    The outage also disrupted a speech by Oprah Winfrey at D.C.'s Warner Theatre during the unveiling of a Maya Angelou postage stamp; First Lady Michelle Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder were in attendance when the theater went dark.

    The outages extended as far south as St. Mary's County, where police and firefighters reported that traffic lights did not work for much of the afternoon.

    Weather throughout the D.C. area was overcast, but there were no storms at the time of the outages.

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