South Bay News

Sabotage causes widespread phone outage

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Phone service was interrupted and telephone lines were severed in an act of sabotage Wednesday night. All day Thursday crews worked to repair the damage done at four locations. Fiber optic lines were severed at two separate locations in San Carlos and two different locations in South San Jose. Tens of thousands of Sprint/Nextel, Verizon and AT&T customers were without service since 2:00 a.m. Thursday. The outage also knocked out Internet service all the way up the Peninsula into San Francisco.

Click here to follow updates on the outage from AT&T's Twitter page.

The majority of customers were back in service by around 7 p.m. Thursday night.

Earlier on Thursday, Santa Clara County declared a state of emergency due to the massive phone outage. Those impacted included people around San Carlos, South Santa Clara County, and San Benito County.

San Jose police and the FBI are eager to track down the one responsible. The person opened a manhole cover, climbed 10 feet down into a man hole, stood in four feet of water, and started sawing lines belonging to AT&T and shared with Verizon.

"You have to know what you're doing. Clearly, these are heavy pieces of equipment to lift off. There's a particular tool you use to do so," said AT&T spokesperson John Britton. "So whoever did it has access to that tool."

Sources tell ABC7 that whoever cut those cables also had expertise, leaving difficult and extensive damage behind. Each cable contains 360 fiber optic strands and each strand with the ability to carry 300 to 400 phone calls.

Police have yet to name suspects, but are certainly aware of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), who work on those lines and had a labor contract with AT&T that expired on Saturday night. The union spokesperson denied any knowledge of CWA involvement in these acts.

"We're confident when the facts are in, everyone will understand this was not union related," said Libby Sayre with CWA.

Since September 11, 2001, federal law could also interpret tampering with telecommunications infrastructure as an act of terrorism. With that in mind, San Jose Police have notified the FBI.

Whoever did this could face all sorts of charges, depending on whether the case is prosecuted by the state or federal government.

"These people shut down 9-1-1. Someone could have died as a result. So I think this can be anything from a federal act of terrorism to a simple act of vandalism under state law," said ABC7 legal analyst Dean Johnson.

Johnson tells us this is the kind of case that could get the law changed to better deal with a crime of this magnitude.

Challenge for first responders:

This communications crisis tested an alternative emergency response. All day there was a full-scale, multi-level emergency operation going on.

After going through this event, the Santa Clara County supervisors will meet with the disaster council next week to figure out how to be more prepared for something like this.

The service disruption presented quite a challenge for police and firefighters. Since people were unable to call 9-1-1 for emergencies, they had to devise another strategy.

Typically, the Morgan Hill Dispatch Center receives 30 9-1-1 calls per day. During the outage, the system was re-routed so that people with local service in the San Jose area could still call 9-1-1.

The outage was unlike any emergency first responders had ever seen, but they reacted by doing what they are trained to do which is to mobilize fast.

"We're pretty much prepared in the event of any type of emergency by activating the operations center, utilizing combined resources from all sorts of areas," said Chief Ron Vega with the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

There was some limited local phone service in Morgan Hill, but for the most part, police and fire personnel relied on two-way radios to communicate.

"Most of the fire departments in the county are on this radio system, so our communication is pretty solid as far as our two-way radios are concerned," said Capt. Ian Wallace with the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

Police, fire, and amateur radio operators were placed strategically in communities without service. In emergencies, seconds count, and not having instant access to 9-1-1 poses a deadly risk.

"There is no doubt that the lack of phone lines will delay that response. So it could potentially mean a matter of life and death and we certainly hope that it doesn't come to that," said Commander David Swing with the Morgan Hill Police Department.

The emergency strategy paid off and people who couldn't call 9-1-1 still got the help they needed. There were a few occasions where citizens were flagged down in the field and people had access to emergency services.

Economic impact to businesses:

During the outage, many businesses that rely on credit and debit payments were forced to operate on a cash-only basis.

Many banks locked their doors. An assistant manager at a Bank of America branch said he could take deposits, but he could not give out cash. ATMs were offline and out of service.

It suddenly became a cash-only day at Target, as well as at many gas stations, unless their debit card devices were connected by satellite.

Contractors who depend on their cell phones were left stranded, losing a day without pay.

The Morgan Hill Unified School Distrct was on high alert, knowing that they would be cut off from parents and police in case of emergency. The district's 15 schools are linked by a private communications network. Parents could not call in to report illness.

IBM in San Jose completely shut down, sending home workers because they had no Internet and no telephone service.

Not every business suffered through this outage. Brad Jones, the owner of Book Smart in Morgan Hill, says his business was thriving.

"They couldn't get on the telephone and so they wanted something to read. So it was really wonderful it was very busy when I walked in first thing this morning," said Jones.

He says there were 20 people waiting at the door when he opened this morning.

Reward offered:

AT&T is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest/conviction of those responsible for the vandalism. Call:
408-277-4161 (San Jose PD)
650--802-4423 (San Carlos PD)
408-947-STOP (Crimestopper)

Residents who are experiencing an emergency situation and cannot access 911 from a land line should call the police dispatch seven-digit phone number for assistance:
For Gilroy: (408) 846-0350
For Morgan Hill: (408) 779-2101
For Unincorporated areas: (408) 299-2311
For San Jose: (408) 277-8911

FIRE STATIONS:
18300 Old Monterey Road, Morgan Hill
2100 East Dunne Avenue, Morgan Hill
15670 Monterey Highway, Morgan Hill
10810 North Name Uno, San Martin
3050 Hecker Pass Highway, Gilroy
7070 Chesnut Street, Gilroy
8383 Wren Avenue, Gilroy
880 Sunrise Drive, Gilroy

HOSPITAL
Saint Louise Hospital
9400 North Name Uno, Gilroy

POLICE
Morgan Hill Police
16200 Vineyard Blvd

Gilroy Police
7301 Hanna Street

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