SANTA FE, N.M. — A lightning-caused power outage stretching from Santa Fe to Los Lunas left more than 100,000 people in the dark Sunday night, causing low-level panic, trapping a man in an elevator and contributing to at least one fatal crash.
Public Service Company of New Mexico spokesman Pahl Shipley said about one-third of the utility’s electricity was temporarily wiped out after a “transmission line problem” at a West Side substation.
An Albuquerque Fire Department spokesman said firefighters believe the substation at Ouray and Unser was “directly struck by lightning,” causing both a brush fire and the “widespread power outage through Albuquerque and some of the surrounding areas.”
Power first flickered, then went out just after 7:30 p.m., leaving large swaths of residential areas and city streets black from Los Lunas to Santa Fe, though pockets of electricity remained.
At its height, the outage affected 135,435 customers on 81 substations, Shipley said. The company serves about 531,000 customers, most of them in the area affected Sunday.
On Twitter, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales reported that the loss of power apparently contributed to a fatal traffic accident in south Santa Fe. He said in a tweet that there were reports that someone was killed when a “motorcyclist stopped due to lights being out but driver behind did not.”
A Santa Fe police spokesman confirmed that the motorcyclist was killed while stopped at a flashing traffic signal during the outage at Cerrillos and Cristos Road, just south of Governor Miles. A woman driving a vehicle struck the motorcyclist from behind. Alcohol was not a factor, the police spokesman said.
Shipley said all power had been restored by about 10:45 p.m.
“We obviously haven’t had an event that impacted our system like that in quite a while,” Shipley said, but he stopped short of saying it was PNM’s largest outage.
The outage snarled traffic throughout the Duke City as motorists struggled through intersections with inoperable stoplights. Local websites – including PNM’s – went down and several radio stations played static.
Shipley wasn’t sure if the PNM website outage was because of a surge in traffic or lost power.
“It seems to be up now,” Shipley said about 9 p.m. “But the outage map seems a little bit overwhelmed.”
Aubree Boivin was watching TV with a friend whose home backs up to the substation in Albuquerque when they heard a strange, loud buzzing.
“Everything lit up,” she said. “Everything lit up red. I really thought we were being abducted by aliens.”
They’d noticed lots of lightning in the area in the minutes before the massive strike, which she said left the transformer itself on fire momentarily.
“You could see on the transformer where it wasn’t connected anymore because it had caught fire,” she said.
Jose Delgado recorded the fire and smoke from the incident.
“It shook the house,” he said. “It was kind of amazing.”
The regional outage struck just moments after Tony Hopper and Annemarie Madaras decided to watch the lightning storm from atop the Cornell Parking Structure at the University of New Mexico.
Hopper and his dog, Trudy, opted to take the glass elevator while Madaras and her dog took the stairs.
But more than an hour later, Hopper was still stuck in the elevator.
“I was going up and while it was traveling it just stopped and none of the buttons worked,” Hopper said. “The lights on the buttons that show what floor you’re going to, they all turned off.”
He learned quickly that the emergency phone button inside of the elevator was useless – the line rang a few times before an automated message informed him that no one was available to take his call.
“I would have just been stuck there until somebody walked by,” he said. “Because I didn’t have my phone with me.”
Luckily Madaras realized that her boyfriend hadn’t made it to the top, and she was able to locate him on the fifth floor of the structure.
The elevator has a window and the two were able to talk through the doors as they waited for help.
Madaras contacted campus police and the couple waited for about an hour before calling 911. UNM personnel finally arrived as they were talking with emergency dispatchers, Hopper said, and firefighters were on scene within minutes.
As firefighters worked to pry the doors open, Madaras said one of them joked that Hopper will “probably be a stair man from now on.”
But Hopper said the ordeal wouldn’t deter him from future elevator use.