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The Day the Lights went out in Cartagena

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There was only one traffic light in the entire city!

One Sunday in 1970, in the city of Cartagena, Colombia, I was enjoying an afternoon at the beach. The Hotel Caribe (you can see it on www.hotelcaribe.com) where I was staying was at the end of a long peninsula with just one main road leading to the city. Upon return to the hotel lobby after sunbathing and swimming on my day off, I found the lights out in the lobby and the blades of the ceiling fans strangely dormant. I returned to the doorway and looked back toward the city. It was approaching dusk, but there were no lights on along the roadway. This was ominous.

I went back to my room and found, of course, my air conditioner not working and the lights out too. Just as I entered, the phone rang. It was my primary contact at the power plant, Rodolfo, pleading with me to come to the power plant. Problem was, it was situated on the other side of the city. The plant was down and he needed me to come out and help restart the frame 5 gas turbine/generator.

Cartagena is the oldest ciudad in South America, with most of the main city surrounded by an enormous wall. It was built 500 years ago to prevent invasions from pirates who roamed the Caribbean. If you’ve seen the movie “Romancing Stone” you may recall scenes filmed in the city. There were about one million residents of Cartagena, but there was only one intersection with traffic lights! It was situated at the main entrance to the fortress. Yes, just one semáfaro for the entire city!

At Rodolfo’s behest, I jumped into my rented Jeep and sped back toward town. As I approached the main intersection, I encountered (you guessed it) a major traffic jam. I tried to drive around the tie up by going through the old city. The streets were clogged. I drove down one-way streets the wrong way and over sidewalks. It took about an hour to circumvent the snarl and get to the Corelca’s Planta Eléctrica.

Since we had one GE frame 5 plant disassembled for a mechanical outage, the other MS5001N package power plant (also a black start unit) was needed to bring back the city. The problem was, it had tripped out during operation that afternoon. It rolled down and went on ratchet, as expected. However, the batteries eventually wore down and became too weak to permit another start attempt. The most recent attempt (initiated before I arrived) was aborted due to high vibrations (bowed rotor). Things looked bleak.

What to do? We could move the batteries from unit one (sixty 2-volt cells weighing about 80 pounds each) but that would take several hours. I asked if they have any one-inch power cables available. They did and we fashioned huge “jumper wires” and restarted the unit, just like it was a stalled automobile along the roadway.

Driving back to town at about 3:00 am, I came to the one intersection with the traffic light. The semáfaro was working again! Of course it was red when I arrived. It took a while to go from rojo a amarillo a verde. I waited patiently for the sequence of lights, though few other cars and pedestrians were on the street at that hour. Why jump the light? I savored the moment.

Dave Lucier (FEP-1969)

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Last modified Monday, Apr-24-2006 11:35 AM
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