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Italy grinds to halt in nationwide power blackout
( 2003-09-28 00:08) (Agencies)

A nationwide power blackout in Italy hit virtually the whole population in the dead of night on Sunday, unleashing chaos, stalling lifts and stranding travelers.

Only one death was unofficially attributed to the outage, however: a man killed in a traffic accident at an intersection where the lights had failed.

Almost all of the country's 57 million people were affected -- more than in last month's collapse in the U.S. Northeast and Canada. But coming on a weekend night its initial impact was less dramatic and caused less economic damage.

"It's chaos, and until the electricity comes back on it will continue to be chaos," said policeman Fabio Bragazzi, 21, at Rome's main Termini train station where passengers, among some 30,000 stranded across the country, slept on the ground.

It was the fourth major Western blackout in two months, after cuts in North America, parts of London and Scandinavia.

By late afternoon on Sunday, 13 hours after the blackout hit, a handful of Italy's 103 provinces were still without some power, mostly remote areas in the south.

Authorities blamed the outage on a breakdown of electricity lines, some in heavy storms, from France, Switzerland and Austria -- neighbors on whom Italy relies heavily for power.

A Swiss power firm said a tree, uprooted by strong winds, had knocked out a line carrying power to Italy over the Alps.

Rome's underground railway had to be evacuated and the outage marred a special "open night" in the city where shops, tourist sites and museums were to stay open until daybreak.

Hundreds were blocked in elevators across the country. But with most people asleep and emergency generators kicking in for hospitals and key services, the impact was muted.

Authorities said precautionary power cuts could hit about five percent of households on Monday.

Italy's worst blackout for nearly a decade, which struck at 3:20 a.m. (0120 GMT), hit all Italy except the island of Sardinia and some small pockets of the mainland, officials said.


Officials first blamed it on the breakdown of two big lines from France, which provides critical supplies and up to a fifth of Italy's needs at night, during severe storms.

But they later said lines from Switzerland and Austria also failed, apparently helping to trigger the blackout, which also briefly hit an adjacent Swiss region.

"It was an exceptional, extraordinary event," Andrea Bollino, chairman of Italy's grid operator GRTN, told Reuters.

France's grid operator RTE said the blackout started with four successive line failures between Switzerland and Italy.

A spokesman for ATEL, one of Switzerland's biggest electricity providers, said a tree uprooted by strong winds knocked out a Swiss transmission line to Italy.

Power was expected to be up in all of Italy before Monday, Industry Minister Antonio Marzano said.

State-controlled airline Alitalia said airports continued working, with only four domestic flights canceled.

Patrons in one Rome cafe without power to run the coffee machine turned to liqueur instead.

"We're not happy at all. Everything was fine until about 3:30 a.m. (0130 GMT). Then it all happened at once and now we're angry," one party-goer in Rome said.

About 110 trains carrying more than 30,000 passengers were stranded when the power went out. Trains were held at the Swiss border for more than 3-1/2 hours before power returned.

Some patients were transferred from private clinics to public hospitals without incident, civil defense officials said.

Mobile phone services in many parts of the country were down, while some newspapers could not publish.

Civil Defense sent text messages to mobile phones alerting users to the blackout and telling them not to panic.

The national grid operator said it was the biggest blackout since 1994 in Italy, which suffered several outages this summer as temperatures soared.

The cut exposed Italy's reliance on imports from neighbors. It has shunned nuclear power and although it has pledged to build more power stations, it will take years to fill the gap.

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