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Errant balloons make a power play Cause outages that black out Bills game

It takes a lot of effort to be a dedicated Bills fan these days.

Richard Ryan found that out Sunday after driving 25 miles from his home in West Seneca to a sports bar and grill in Niagara Falls to watch the game in high-definition television with some of his buddies from work.

He arrived to find the Cincinnati Bengals playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two power outages had blacked out the Bills game during much of the first half.

"I live right near the stadium, so it's kind of funny," Ryan said. "The power was out at home. Everyone was on their cell phones trying to figure out what was going on."

As if a dispute between Time Warner Cable and the parent company of WIVB-TV, Channel 4, in Buffalo, that has kept two Bills games off the air for most cable subscribers wasn't enough, several helium-filled balloons conspired Sunday to keep the game from those with antennas and satellite television.

And Niagara County cable subscribers who had settled in to watch the game on Toronto's CFTO-TV -- where the game was available to Time Warner customers but not in other areas of Western New York -- watched the Bills disappear from television after only a few plays.
"One time we get something nice -- usually it's Erie County that gets everything -- and then this happens," said Nick Occhipinti, a 23-year-old Niagara University student.

The culprit: a cluster of helium balloons with metallic tails that became entangled in power lines near the stadium shortly before the game, New York State Electric & Gas spokesman Randy Edwards said.

Edwards said several chauffeurs in the stadium parking lot saw the balloons become entangled at about 12:45 p.m.

"They actually heard and saw the smoke from where they hit the transformers," Edwards said.

The balloons caused two outages during the first half of the game as utility workers struggled to get power flowing to about 800 customers in the area -- including Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The company switched to secondary power lines, but the same balloons soon caused problems with those lines, and power had to be switched back to the primary lines, Edwards said.

A utility pole fire about a mile from the stadium -- believed to be unrelated to the tangled balloons -- also complicated efforts to restore power, Edwards said.

The power outages caused CBS-TV to lose its feed during significant portions of the first half of the game.

That meant cable subscribers who made arrangements to watch the game on television despite the dispute between Time Warner and LIN TV were still out of luck during the first half.

The unexpected outages spurred a few conspiracy theories among those in Judi's Bar and Grill in the Town of Niagara.

"Who was to blame for it?" asked Adams Rivers, 24, of Niagara Falls. "That's what everybody was thinking."

Edwards said the utility company is still investigating the events surrounding the power outages.

Several fans interviewed during the game took the power outages in stride but expressed frustration over the ongoing cable negotiations that have kept CBS off the air for Time Warner subscribers.

"It's screwing everybody up," said Bob Hlywa, who watched the game on large-screen televisions in Old Falls Street Bar and Grill in Niagara Falls after power and the CBS feed were restored.

News staff reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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