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Blackout at Bills game raises safety issues Fans left in dark as to why outage shut down key stadium operations

Lack of emergency lights in the Ralph Wilson Stadium bathrooms and concourses.

Unsanitary conditions in the men's rooms.

No public-address system in case of an emergency.

And no explanation to fans why nonfunctioning ticket scanners forced entrance gates to be closed for an extended period before the game.

One day after the Buffalo Bills left their fans giddy with a big win against San Diego, some customers still were grumbling Monday about the lack of safety measures during several power outages in the stadium.

Public officials also realized the significance of the outages.

"I think the loss of power should be a wake-up call for all of us," Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said. "We were lucky it happened when it did. Had it been a night game, I think the loss of power would have been much worse."

Top Bills officials, who remained huddled much of Monday, had more questions than answers as they vowed to conduct a full stress test on their emergency backup system.

"We test the backup generators every week, and we know they're functioning. They fired up yesterday," said Scott Berch-told, the team's vice president of communications. "What we're looking at in testing this whole system is everything that runs off those generators."

The Bills acknowledged that they have heard complaints from fans, especially about the loss of bathroom and concourse lights and the public-address system at various times during the afternoon.

"It is funny how the Bills are constantly writing us season ticket holders about how we have to be cooperative to have a 'safer' post 9/1 1 experience," Dave Shapiro, of Amherst, wrote to The Buffalo News.

"But the Bills," he added, "seem to be best at enforcing regulations barring outside water bottles or cocoa thermoses from the stadium (which coincidentally increases their revenue), while putting no effort into having measures in place to deal with something as minor as a power outage."

Tammy Turnbull, of East Aurora, left the game around halftime, after her husband, James, had his socks and shoes soaked with urine in a pitch-black men's room.

"We didn't feel safe," Tammy Turnbull said. "They should have a backup generator to keep the hallways and bathrooms lighted and the PA system working. They needed some kind of emergency backup plan."

>Balloons to blame

The culprits in Sunday's power outages were several mylar-coated helium balloons that struck power lines coming into the stadium about 15 to 30 minutes before game time, New York State Electric & Gas Corp. and other officials said.

How can balloons cause such havoc?

They're coated with a thin veneer of aluminum, considered an excellent conductor of electricity. So when such a balloon strikes a power line, it can send electricity arcing between transformers, often causing live wires to fall to the ground.

These balloons have caused hundreds of such power outages each year across the country. Those outages even led California to consider banning such metallic-coated balloons earlier this year.

Sunday, officials quickly switched Ralph Wilson Stadium to a backup system, but the balloons also got caught in those lines. Later, a utility pole caught on fire, creating a third delay.

The game started on time but at about 1:10 p.m. was delayed for about 15 minutes. Play resumed without scoreboard and other electrical systems.

"We're continuing our investigation, and we have nothing new to report," Randy Edwards, a NYSE&G spokesman, said Monday.

Answers were hard to find Monday, but there still were plenty of complaints.

Tammy Turnbull still remained perplexed about the reaction of stadium personnel during the blackout.

>Beer sold in dark

"I didn't see any security officers in the darkened areas or any extra precautions that were taken," she said. "They continued selling beer in the darkened hallways, but they didn't do anything to make sure the stadium was a safe place for patrons."

On the Turnbulls' way out of the stadium, they filled out a complaint form with Guest Relations. Monday, a Bills employee called them back.

"They said they did everything they could, that the power went out, . . . and it wasn't their fault," Tammy Turnbull said.

She also was upset about the public-address system not working during some of the power outage.

"If they had an emergency or needed an emergency evacuation, they had no way to communicate with everyone," she said.

Shapiro wondered whether the Bills were exempt from standard state commercial safety regulations.

"If power goes out during a real emergency, i.e. fire, those regulations are in place to prevent people from being lost/trampled to death during evacuation," Shapiro stated.

But Berchtold, from the Bills, vowed that the Bills will correct any problems found in the stress test of the system. And he disagreed with those who called Sunday's situation unsafe.

"I didn't get that feeling," he said. "You really have to commend the fans. I think they did a tremendous job in their reaction to the situation."

The power outage, meanwhile, might have had one silver lining, possibly helping lead to a relative lack of rowdy behavior inside the stadium.

Orchard Park Police Chief Andrew Benz reported that law enforcement officials arrested 16 people at the game.

That's fewer than at either of the two previous home games this season; police logged 39 arrests at the Raiders game Sept. 21 and 28 at the Seahawks game Sept. 7.

>Names of arrestees

"The power being out and the jumbotron being out may have forced people to pay more attention to the game," Benz said, emphasizing that was just a theory. "Hopefully, they stayed out of trouble then."

Orchard Park arrested one person twice. Joseph C. Ferreira, 19, of Milton, Ont., was arrested on a charge of criminal trespass at the stadium, then later charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest when he battled with officers, according to police reports.

Charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest were Jason F. Flansburg, 31, of Brockport; Sean K. Thompson, 23, of North Tonawanda; and Scott J. Pintabone, 23, of Phillipsburg, N.J.

Curtis B. Defreitas, 40, of Brampton, Ont., faces charges of obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.

Two people were charged with criminal trespass and harassment: John M. Holse, 32, of Elma, and A.N. Brooks-Morgese, 23, of Dobbs Ferry.

Charged with exposure of a person were David W. Forrest, 37, of Williamsville; Daniel R. Clements, 25, of Barrie, Ont.; and Erle T. Anderson, 43, of Toronto.

Also arrested were Jordon Johnson, 26, of Pembroke, Ont., felony criminal mischief; Joshua F. McGinley, 22, of Utica, criminal trespass; Thomas M. Burke, 27, of Rochester, endangering the welfare of a child and harassment; John L. Grow, 40, of Webster, disorderly conduct; Vernon Walton, 31, of Buffalo, aggravated unlicensed operation and driving with a suspended registration; and Bruce Sage, 50, of Hamburg, DWI and unlicensed operation.

Authorities ejected 106 fans and turned 17 away at the entrance gate for extreme drunkenness, Benz reported.


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