Friday April 19, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- An underground fire at the Time Warner Cable building Thursday afternoon temporarily knocked out service to 16,000 customers across Western Massachusetts.

According to Pittsfield Deputy Fire Chief Keith Phillips, the fire was reported just after 2 p.m., when a fault occurred inside an electrical pit just outside 4 Federico Drive, a commercial building housing both Time Warner Cable and Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV).

"When the fault occurred, it kicked on the second generator to power the building, like it’s supposed to" Phillips said. "It’s gasoline powered, so we had to shut it down. There was no extension of the fire to the building."

The fire affected an underground power line for Time Warner, knocking out phone, Internet and cable services for about an hour to 16,000 customers in Western Massachusetts only, according to Time Warner spokeswoman Joli Plucknette-Farmen. She said the Pittsfield building is the regional hub.

Time Warner was able to restore power to the building -- and as a result, service to its customers -- by 4 p.m. by bringing in a back-up generator, according to Toni Berlandy, a spokeswoman for Western Massachusetts Electric Co. (WMECo).

She said 10 other nearby commercial and industrial buildings lost power but it was restored quickly. Power was not restored to Champlain Masonry, another business on Federico Drive, and ran off the Time Warner generator, Berlandy said.

To survey how much wiring had been damaged in the fire, WMECo crews dug underground, cut away tree limbs with a chainsaw and cut away fencing in the back of the building for better access to the underground wires.

WMECo crews worked well into the evening to get the Time Warner and PCTV building, and Champlain Masonry, off the generator and back onto the WMECo grid, Berlandy said. The same 10 customers that lost power early Thursday were scheduled to lose power again for at least three hours Thursday night to safely replace the damaged wires and completely restore power, Berlandy said.

There were at least three Time Warner Cable employees and 15 PCTV employees and volunteers in the building when the fire was reported. No injuries were reported.

Inside the PCTV studio, "the lights were flicking violently," PCTV engineer Shawn Serre said. Outside, he saw "flames and smoke and arcing wires," he said.

PCTV was filming a poetry special with guests ranging from the Berkshires to Enfield, Conn., when they had to leave the building, PCTV producer and volunteer Pat Gormalley said.

"You put poetry on TV, it causes a fire," Gormalley joked.

"It’s hot stuff," Serre added.

Several Time Warner customers, who had no other form of communication, during the service outage, showed up to the building to ask why their services were shut off. Others had their bills in hand ready to pay, but were turned away because the building was closed. Many customers expressed frustration to PCTV volunteers and employees standing nearby.

To reach Adam Poulisse:
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