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Vol. LIX, No. 13
October 6, 2006

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Tales from the Darkened Side

Dear Editor,

As reported in the May 18 issue of the NIH Record, a fire emergency was declared in Bldg. 37 on Apr. 23. However, while the Fire Department declared the emergency over at 9:15 p.m., only emergency power was restored immediately. In fact, power was restored more than 2 full days later, only to be cut off again that afternoon and again on Apr. 28 to allow repairs to be completed. Thus began another chapter in the storied history of the venerable Bldg. 37, creating some special memories for all those who were present on the Week the Lights Went Out.

As power outages go, this one was unusual: power was out only on the south side of the building, and only on floors 2 through 6, creating the haves and have-nots or, better yet, the Light and the Dark Side on each floor. It also created a DMZ line of labs between the Light and the Dark where lights were out but all the power strips and equipment were on, so experiments proceeded under emergency lighting. In other labs, the lights and power outlets were on but the network and telephones were out.

For the unsuspecting Dark Siders, we came in on the morning of the 24th expecting a normal day at work and quickly found anything but normality. While emergency lights and -80-degree emergency-generator freezers were functional, smaller freezers and refrigerators that had lost power the evening before were already at room temperature. Therefore, amid the cacophony of unsynchronized machine and freezer alarms going off and with the much-coveted "Light" just a few feet away down the corridor, everyone obsessed with how to access the salvation outlets that would save fridge and freezer contents.

Solutions varied from lab to lab, corridor, hallway and floor. The resourceful found the emergency outlets and connected to the emergency generators; the straightforward resorted to rolling, dragging or carrying under-counter fridges and freezers to the Light side; the organized invested large sums of money in acquiring miles and miles of extension cords and ran them north to south along the walls of the corridors; the practical emptied the contents of refrigerators and freezers and moved them into 15 l letterslabs that had available space; and the lunatic just drew one extension line and connected many surge protectors to it, and several fridges and freezers to those, creating a tangled web of power cords that threatened to short-circuit the rest of the building's power.

Furthermore, the loss of power gave the Dark Siders a taste of life without the trappings of modern technology or power-no telephone lines, no lights, no network or wireless network. Thus, the simplest of tasks became a challenge and the simplest of experiments required creativity and networking. Finding what floor had an ice machine or a dark room with a film developer that was plugged in to the Light side required connections and word of mouth. It also forced people from various labs and floors to interact, a feat that socials, picnics and parties fail to achieve. However, once the initial chaos was overcome, people settled in conference rooms, hallways or on empty lab benches and proceeded to work on whatever they could, given the circumstances.

But while we Dark Siders thought we had it rough, we had to spare a thought for our friends on the second floor who on Apr. 23 had been polishing posters and presentations for their quadrennial site visit scheduled the next day. One can only imagine the panic they were plunged into when the fire alarm went off, computers died and everyone was evacuated. The site-visit committee must have found it enlightening to read posters in half-lit hallways. Those are some of the tales from the Dark Side.

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