Officials: Power station blast prompts outages across DC

By Ben Nuckols, Associated Press

With the Capitol in the background, transportation maintenance workers check their traffic light system after widespread power outages cause traffic lights to go out and many of the buildings along the National Mall in Washington to shut down temporarily, Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Widespread power outages affected the White House, State Department, Capitol and other sites across Washington and its suburbs Tuesday afternoon — all because of an explosion at a power plant in southern Maryland, an official said. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Widespread power outages affected the White House, the Capitol, museums, train stations and other sites across Washington and its suburbs Tuesday afternoon — all because of an explosion at a Maryland power station, officials said.

Many of the outages were brief, but some were longer and forced evacuations. Officials said a mechanical failure at a transfer station led to the outages, and terrorism was not suspected. Tens of thousands of customers lost power.

At the White House, backup generators kicked on, so the interruption lasted only a few seconds. The complex quickly went back onto regular power. Electricity in the press briefing room dipped around lunchtime, briefly darkening cubicles and blackening TV screens.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he was with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office when the power blip occurred, and they didn't notice anything unusual. Only some of the offices in the White House complex were affected, he said.

Power also went out at the State Department during the daily press briefing, forcing spokeswoman Marie Harf to finish her comments in the dark.

Power in the U.S. Capitol building twice shut down briefly, and then came back on by way of a generator.

The mechanical failure occurred shortly before 1 p.m. at a transfer station in Charles County, Maryland, that is controlled by utilities serving Washington and southern Maryland. Homeland security officials in Washington and Maryland said there was an explosion at the station, although the two utilities, Pepco and the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, could not immediately confirm that there was a blast or fire. No one was injured, the utilities said.

Admiral William Gortney — commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which is tasked with homeland defense — was visiting the Pentagon when the outage hit. He said it was important to assess how well backup systems work during such events.

"Are the backup systems that we put in place, do they work? At the moment, that's what I've been told is that they all kicked in and they're all working, everybody was back up on backup power, which is why we do it. We build redundancy into this critical infrastructure," Gortney said.

But some effects of the outages were still apparent later Tuesday afternoon.

Some traffic lights were out, and Metro said 14 of its 91 public transit stations were affected. Power to the trains remained on and trains were moving, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said, but the affected stations were on emergency power, with dimmer lighting and nonworking elevators and escalators.

University of Maryland officials said their entire campus was affected.

Some Smithsonian museums also lost power. 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 were evacuated and closed to the public, a spokeswoman said.

Jenni Swan, who was visiting from Savannah, Georgia, with her husband and two children, said they were eating in the atrium of the Air and Space Museum around 1 p.m. when security officers said the building was being evacuated. Almost an hour later, they were not yet let back in.

"Honestly I think my kids are excited because of all the fire trucks and people leaving the building quickly," she said. "I think Daddy's a little annoyed."

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Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Brett Zongker and Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.

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