How the York community survived the Great Power Outage

It seemed like there were a million stories in blacked-out York University, after the northeastern sector of North America suffered its massive power outage last Thursday.

The lights were out, the computers were blank, exams were postponed, elevators weren’t running, the subway wasn’t going, the air conditioning was kaput – but many people pulled together to keep the University ticking over, while others managed to get home and make sure their families were all right. Not only that – the tennis championship went on. And so did at least one wedding we know of.

Stories are flowing in to YFile about how people coped with the unexpected power outage. Staff went above and beyond their call of duty to get the University back in operation, some worked by pen and candlelight to ensure events took place and people laboured around the clock to get the York computer system back into service.

Incidentally, for information for the rescheduling of those postponed exams, visit

Read on for a sampling of stories….

James Brown, director of Housing & Food Services, had a story to tell about quiet heroism on the Keele campus. “When the lights went off at 4:10 on Thursday, Dan Tilling’s first thought was the elevators. Dan is the day superintendent for the York Apartments, Campus Services & Business Operations. He checked the elevators in 2, 4, 6 Assiniboine and in 8 Assiniboine (student residences) and found one individual trapped. She had almost made it to her destination on the 12th floor when the elevator ground to a halt. Fortunately, Otis Elevator was already on campus – and although they don’t actually have the service contract for these elevators, were still able to get the doors open and get her out.

“With the power down, Dan realized there would be no fire alarms, and so he remained for the entire night, on fire watch. There were no incidents during the night; in fact, tenants generally seemed to be taking things very well and there was even a sort of  ‘block-party’ atmosphere.

“When power first sputtered back on Friday morning, another tenant got into an elevator, only to have it sputter back off almost immediately. She too was trapped, but only for a short period.

“Housing had a number of move ins and move outs on the Friday, and Danny completed a second full day at York helping with the move ins.”


Left: Vari Hall, Keele campus

In the Office of Research & Innovation (VPRI), it was like a scene from a Dickens novel as staff worked by candlelight with paper and pen (though not quill pen) in order to ensure that everything was prepared for both a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) meeting early Friday morning and the VPRI marquee event later in the morning for the Rogers AT&T Cup.

“The show must go on you know,” said Chris Buhagiar stoically, as manager of research policy and government relations in VPRI. “Both the CIHR meeting and the tennis event went off as planned Friday morning without power, but with an obviously lighter attendance than planned. 

“The continental breakfast that we had ordered for the CIHR meeting for 7:30am on Friday was actually there, fresh and set up on time. Kudos should go out to Trevor Wynne-Jones [manager] and his staff at the Cock & Bull Pub for getting us our food despite the blackout.”

Left: Glendon College

Glendon College had its own events to cope with. Said Housing’s James Brown: “A lovely group of 70 people arrived at Glendon College on Thursday to participate in a conference [Starlight yoga conference] until Sunday. When the power first went out, Stephanie Fontaine, food service director for the campus catering company, Chartwells, and her staff, managed to cope, thinking it would be restored quickly.

“On Friday morning the University was closed, and Stephanie was concerned until Pascal Lewin, conference coordinator, Glendon Housing & Hospitality, walked into her office at 7am. He proceeded to verify the state of affairs, to assist and to answer questions from the conference organizer and many other concerned individuals residing on campus.

Right: One of York’s conference rooms

“Pascal remained all day, and even helped food service staff to serve dinner until 9:3opm, as some staff could not reach Glendon. And again on Saturday, he came in to circulate among the guests at lunch time, and did not leave until he had resolved any concerns regarding rooms, electricity and even the restocking and cleaning of the main floor restrooms. His presence was clearly greatly appreciated by the conference guests, as it demonstrated concern for their well-being and comfort.

“During their last meal on Sunday, Stephanie received many thanks from the guests, and many compliments were directed at herself and Pascal for having showed such diligence in providing the best service possible under the circumstances.”

Master of Bethune College Paul Delaney, senior lecturer in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy, saw some benefits from the power outage. “It was an interesting perspective on the pluses of the blackout…. The sky was simply amazing showing us all what we are missing.”

Left: Did you see the night sky?

For Steve Pottle, insurance analyst in York’s Insurance and Risk Management Department, the blackout was a bit of an astronomical adventure. “After walking home from Dundas West Subway station to the other side of town (Danforth Avenue), I came home to find my street completely dark,” he said. “In fact, with the entire city with no lights, it felt like I was in the middle of Algonquin Park rather than the heart of the city.

“I took it as an opportunity to introduce my kids to many of the stars and constellations that would normally be hidden by the lights of the city. It was a great time! No TV, no radio, no computers!! Just my wife and kids and the light show above.”

Speaking of computers, most of the York community registered surprise and even dismay when their computers suddenly shut down on Thursday on or about 4:11pm. How would they communicate with the outside world at work or at home?

That problem was centre stage in the minds of Bob Gagne and his staff when the power went off with no advance warning. “I can’t say enough about the commitment of the staff here. They are terrific,” he said of the people in Computing & Network Services (CNS).

Gagne described the situation at York as of  “unprecedented magnitude.” The University’s Keele campus has what is called “redundant” power that feeds from a central system, drawing separately from Keele St. and Steeles Ave. substations. “The central system has never failed in the life of the University – until Thursday. Everything went down.”

There is battery backup for many services at York, said Gagne, but nothing that lasts for 12 hours. The phone switch that controls the main York switchboard lost all power four-and-a-half to five hours into the blackout.

“Someone stayed all night at CNS in the Steacie Science Building, waiting for the power to come back on. It was back at about 5:40am and by the time I got to work on Friday at 8am, we had about a dozen people here working. The phone system was up shortly after 9am,” said Gagne.

“In parallel with people working on the phone system, others were working on the data network, which was largely up by about 8am. The next step was to get the e-mail and the main York Web site back up, which we did by early afternoon.”

Gagne said CNS knew there was a risk of damage if all the systems at York were enabled while there was the threat of rolling blackouts, so they were cautious in getting certain ones back up – such as the Student Information System, student labs and so on. “We wanted to be sure there was some stability in the power first, because there is a risk of damage to systems if there are such unceremonious blackouts.”

Hospitality York reported several groups of people staying at the Keele campus, with approximate figures as follows: 75 delegates to the International Society for Analysis Applications & Computation (ISAAC) Congress 2003; 75 people associated with work at the Tennis Canada championship; 175 summer students residents; and 150 “transient guests” (mainly fans attending the Rogers AT&T Cup tennis championship). They were housed in Complex 1, which includes McLaughlin, Vanier and Winters colleges.


Deborah Hahn, senior manager of York’s Hospitality, Campus Services & Business Operations, said Complex 1 kept several rooms available in case members of the York community couldn’t get home Thursday night, “but no one ended up staying.”

Amina Hussain, administrative assistant at Hospitality, Food & Beverage Services, Campus Services & Business Operation, said various food outlets were open on Friday on the Keele Campus, such as Tim Hortons in Central Square, which did a brisk business until the supplies ran out.

Over at York’s Student Centre Corporation, Robert Castle, the centre’s executive director, said, “As soon as the lights went down, my immediate thought turned to our renovations in the Student Centre. Surely, our contractors had done something to trip the power. As with most people, when the power goes down, you only think that it’s local.

“We quickly realized how widespread it was and, for at least a few hours, we thought it best to remain on campus rather than face the gridlock of downtown. So, as with many others, we trundled off to Blueberry Hill and remained there until the draft stopped flowing, enjoying the camaraderie of common experience and listening to a battery-powered radio, courtesy of the Atkinson Students Association orientation package.”

Margaret Crowe, York pension and benefits counsellor in the Department of Human Resources, told a tale of getting to her home at Dufferin and Clark on Thursday and having her son ask her to meet him at Bathurst and Spadina. “My son works at Yonge and Bloor and by 5:30 he had managed to get to Bathurst and Eglinton. I said it would take forever. My daughter suggested she could ride her bike, take her roller blades and she would meet him.

“As she was putting on her helmet with her blades, juice, water and rope in her back pack she said, ‘I feel like I’m going on a rescue mission!’ They met on Bathurst between Lawrence and Eglinton, and once they got her tied up to the bike, they travelled faster than most cars – she just had to watch out for the sewers!

“They got to my brother’s house on Park Home Drive in North York about 8pm, where he fed them and they had a much-appreciated swim in his pool!”

Lynne Van Buskirk, manager of York Communications & Special Projects in the Office of Student Financial Services, said she had “many opportunities to witness the essential kindness of Torontonians this past few days, from the neighbour who gave me food for dinner Thursday night, to those who walked with me as we puffed and panted and joked up 10 flights of stairs, in the dark, to those who gave me updates from their battery-powered radios whenever we had another rolling blackout.

“On Friday evening, after a generator blew at Yonge and Eglinton, the traffic lights were out, again, at that busy intersection. There was no police officer or kind citizen directing traffic, so the traffic directed itself. First the east/west vehicles(and pedestrians) eased forward into the intersection for about 45 seconds, then, as if at some internal signal, they stopped, allowing the north/south traffic to move forward. No one rushed, no one honked, everyone patiently waited their turn, moved when they were supposed to and stopped when they should. It was almost like a ballet, simply beautiful to watch, and couldn’t have been better directed by the most experienced choreographer!”

As for that wedding…. Professor Martin Lockshin, director of York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, joyfully announced the story of a wedding that took place on Thursday night in the middle of the blackout, and which was given coverage in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. “The bride Debbie Cohen, now Debbie Savage, is an alum (BA, psychology, ’86) whom I taught in many courses,” said Lockshin.

Justine Henin-Hardenne valiantly served during soaring temperatures during the Rogers AT&T Cup women’s tennis championship at York on Friday, and recorded a 6-2, 6-4 victory over her Russian opponent. She said the power had been out at her hotel, adding that she hadn’t slept well the night before her big match. It was tough, she said in an understatement. Incidentally, Henin-Hardenne captured the Rogers AT&T Cup.

Please continue to send us your stories about how you or your office coped during the recent power outage.