Saving the Super Bowl

AP Photo
AP Photo

Many people will recall Super Bowl XLVII not for who won the game, but because of the power outage that delayed play for over 30 minutes.  But turning the lights back on inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was not as easy as one might think.

Superdome manager Doug Thornton recalls the moment the lights went out, saying, "My heart was in my throat and there's an initial shock to your system."

Sunday, February 3, the world's spotlight was on New Orleans. The city prepped for years. Media from around the world were in town, and the reviews of the city were glowing.

Then, just minutes into the third quarter, the lights went out. "This can't be happening," Thornton recalled.

The west side of the building lost power.  Toilets wouldn't flush, concession sales stopped, and even the scoreboards and TV screens inside the Dome went blank.

Around the world, people watching the game sat stunned, wondering what was going on inside the Superdome.

Doug Thornton quickly realized what had happened. "I instinctively knew immediately that we had to be losing power into our main electrical feeder, one of our two main electrical feeders and I knew it was the 'A' side of the building because it was the west side that went dark," Thornton explained.

The feeds receive the power from Entergy.  A short time after the power went out, Entergy put out a tweet saying the problem appeared to be at the Superdome. But Thornton and Entergy now confirm the problem was with a relay device in the Entergy vault -- an issue the Dome had nothing to do with.

Thornton says of the tweet, "The fact is, they put it out, it was irresponsible to put it out at that time because they didn't know and we didn't know.  But sometimes in the heat of the moment, people say things they later regret and wish they hadn't said. This is probably one of those times and there are no hard feelings."

Shortly after the lights went out, Thornton realized his crew would have to initiate their emergency plans to restore power. He gave the signal to director of operations Randy Philipson.

Thornton recalls, "I remember hearing him say, I could hear it in my earpiece, 'Ok guys, we drilled for this. We trained for this. We can do this. Let's go!'"

But as Philipson recalls, that power transfer never happened.  "The man was suiting up to make the move, he was putting on his protective gear when Entergy called and said, 'Wait, we got it, we're going to re-energize,'" Philipson explained.

Entergy restored power to the "A" feed but that was just the beginning. Turning the lights back on in the Dome is not as simple as flipping a switch. It's a tedious process involving dozens of engineers.

"I don't think the general public realizes just how much has to be done," Thornton said.

225 switches spread out across 15 different locations in the Dome had to be flipped. 41 escalators and 13 elevators had to be re-started. Air-conditioning units, computer controls in the scoreboard, television screens all had to be reset. Even the coaches' headsets.

The entire process could take up to two hours.  But in this case, it took only 20 to 25 minutes. Thornton says that's because his people had trained for this and knew exactly what they were doing.

Before the game, maps were drawn up and protocols were in place for any disaster the Dome might face, including bomb threats and cyberterrorism attacks.

Thornton explains, "Any time you have a big event like Super Bowl, you go through as much training as possible."

Going a step further, on January 10 and 11, Superdome employees trained specifically for a power outage. They wanted to make sure they knew how to handle any situation that might come their way. "We knew what to expect. We knew what it was going to look like. We knew what we had to do. We knew the order we had to do it in," Philipson said.

On game day, employees were stationed around the Dome at those 15 locations where the switches were located, just in case. That's one of the reasons Thornton says power was restored so quickly.

But all the training ahead of time didn't mean nerves weren't frayed. Thornton comments, "While we may have looked calm, there was a lot of nervousness under the skin so to speak."

Randy Philipson says it was most important to keep his maintenance workers calm while they turned the power back on. "Everybody in here had a sense of purpose. Everybody in here understood the gravity of the situation. There was no unnecessary conversation. We kept the room to a minimum, just to avoid distractions," said Philipson.

All the while, the clock was still ticking. Fans became more and more restless as every minute passed. But after 34 minutes, that felt like an eternity for Thornton and his staff... success! The lights came back on.

It may have come as a welcome relief to many, but not Thornton. "I didn't feel comfortable at all, until that game was over. We were watching the clock, believe me," the Superdome manager said.

Thornton says it's sad that Super Bowl XLVII will most likely be remembered as the black-out bowl, but there are always lessons to learn from situations like this, and he's hopeful it will never happen again.