Overload - Page 111

Karen thought: the operator had probably dialed a wrong number.

She broke the connection by moving her head against the microswitch and tried again. Again a continuous ring. Again no answer.

Karen tried another number-Cynthia's. Again, a continuous ringing tone, but no reply.

Unusually, Karen felt a vague unease. She was rarely alone in the apartment and, on the few occasions when she was, liked to be in touch with someone by telephone.

When she had told Josie she could go, she did so without thinking about it. Now she wished she hadn't.

At that precise moment several lights in the apartment went out, the window air-conditioner stopped, and Karen felt a slight break in rhythm as her respirator switched over from the building's supply to battery.


With a start, Karen remembered something which both she and Josie had overlooked. The battery on the wheelchair, which had been drawn on considerably during her shopping jaunt, ought to have been replaced immediately after she came in. Instead, Josie had plugged in the chair to the building supply and switched the chair battery to "charge."

However, the battery would need at least six hours of charging to recoup what it had lost this morning; it had had barely one, and now, with external power off, the charging would have stopped.

There was a spare, fully charged battery to the right of Karen's chair, ready to be installed before leaving for the hospital. Karen could see it. But there was no way she could connect it herself. She hoped the power would come back on in a few minutes. And, more than ever, she hoped Josie would return quickly.

Karen decided to telephone Nimrod. It seemed likely that the non-scheduled power cut he had said was "possible" and "a long shot" had actually happened.

But when she pressed the phone microswitch with her bead, all she got was a recorded announcement. "All circuits are busy. Please hang up and place your call later."

She tried again. "This is a recorded .

Once more. The same result.

Karen knew, from having read about it, that whenever there was a widespread blackout, phone lines became clogged because more people tried to use them than the system could handle. Also, many dialed "Operator" to ask what was happening, making it difficult to reach an operator too.

She began to be really alarmed. Where was Josie? Why was she taking so long? And why hadn't the janitor, Jimmy, come in to see if she was okay, as he always did when anything out of the ordinary occurred?

* * *

Though Karen had no means of knowing it, a combination of events had contributed to her predicament.

* * *

At 10:45 am, while Karen and Josie were getting ready to go shopping, Luther Sloan was arrested and charged with a total of sixteen offenses, all felonies, under Section 693C of the California Penal Code, which deals specifically with stealing gas.

Since that time, Henrietta Sloan, shocked, despairing, totally inexperienced in the matter, had been trying to arrange her husband's bail.

Shortly before noon she telephoned her elder daughter, Cynthia, appealing for help. Cynthia responded by asking a neighbor to take care of her one living-at-home child when he returned from school, then left to meet her mother. Cynthia's husband was at work and would not be home until evening.

While Karen had been trying to telephone her mother and sister, both were shuttling between a bail bondsman's office and the jail where Luther Sloan was held. They were in the visitors' section of the jail when the power cut occurred, but were unaware of it. The jail had its own standby generator and, while lights flickered off briefly, they came on again at once as the generator started up automatically and took hold.

Only a few minutes earlier, Henrietta Sloan and Cynthia had discussed phoning Karen, but decided against it, not wishing to distress her.

Neither of the two women, nor Luther Sloan, would know about the power cut for another two hours when bail was finally arranged and the trio left the jail together.

* * *

A few minutes before the lights in Karen's apartment went out and her wheelchair and respirator switched over to battery operation, Bob 3Ostrander had shouted to the chief operator at La Mission plant, "Hit those trips! Hit them now!"

When the operator did, the GSP & L transmission system was deprived, without warning, of three million two hundred thousand kilowatts of power, at a time when the utility was operating with a thin reserve, and on a warm May afternoon with load demand unseasonably high because of widespread use of air-conditioners.

The result: A monitoring computer, recognizing there was now insufficient power on line to meet demand, instantly opened high voltage circuit breakers, plunging a large area of the GSP & L system into blackout.

Karen's apartment building was in one of the areas affected.

* * *

Josie and the janitor, Jiminy, were trapped in the apartment building elevator and were shouting frantically, trying to attract attention.

After Josie left Karen she walked quickly to a service station close by where Humperdinck had been left overnight. The lessee knew Karen and allowed the van to be parked without charge. It took Josie less than ten minutes to collect Humperdinck and stop at the apartment house front door, where Karen's wheelchair could be conveniently loaded. The wizened old janitor was touching up paint outside when Josie returned.

He asked, "How's our girl Karen?"

"Fine," Josie answered, then she told him about going to Redwood Grove Hospital because of the next day's scheduled blackout. At that be put down his paint can and brush and said he would come up to see if there was anything he could do to help.

In the elevator, Jiminy pressed the button for the sixth floor and they began ascending. They were between the third floor and the fourth when the elevator stopped and its light went out. There was an emergency battery-powered lamp on a shelf and Jiminy reached up and switched it on, In its dim glow he pressed every button in sight, but nothing happened.

Soon after, they both began shouting for help.

They had now been shouting for twenty minutes without any response.

There was a small trapdoor in the roof of the elevator, but both Josie and Jimmy were short and, even perching on each other's shoulder swhich they tried in turn-they could move it only slightly but had no chance whatever of getting through. Even if they did, it was unlikely they could escape from the elevator shaft.

Josie had long ago remembered about Karen's low battery, which made her cries more desperate and, after a while, her tears flowed as her voice became hoarser.

Though they did not know it then, Josie and Jiminy would remain in the elevator for almost three hours until electric power was restored.

* * *

The telephone company would later report that, while its emergency generators functioned during the blackout, for an hour after it happened, demand for its services was unprecedented. Thousands of calls went uncompleted, and many who tried to reach operators for information were unable to do so.

* * *

Nim Goldman, under pressure on several fronts because of the sudden power failure, thought briefly of Karen and was relieved she had agreed to go to Redwood Grove Hospital early this morning. He decided that later, when things had eased a little, he would phone her there.

* * *

Karen was now white with fear, and sweating.

By this time she knew that something serious had happened to prevent Josie coming back.

She had tried to telephone again and again. Still, all that she could get was the recorded voice. She considered maneuvering her wheelchair and causing it to bang against the outside apartment door in the hope that someone might be passing and would hear, but to move the chair at all would drain, even faster, whatever strength remained in the battery.

Karen knew, through experience and calculation, that the battery could not last long, even to power her respirator. In fact, there was barely a quarter of an hour's life remaining in the battery. On returning from the shopping trip, its power was even more reduced than Karen supposed. Karen, whose religious beliefs had never been strong, began to pray. She begged God and Jesus Christ to send Josie, or Jiminy, or her parents, or Nimrod, or Cynthia, or anyone-anyone!

"All they have to do, God, is connect that other battery. The one down there, Jesus! Anybody can do it! I can tell them how. Oh please, God! Pleasel . . ."

She was still praying when she felt the respirator begin to slow, her breathing become slow and inadequate.

Frantically, she tried the telephone again. "'nis is a recorded announcement. All circuits are busy. Please bang up and . . ."

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