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Brother, Can You Spare a Match? 

The county's cheap ways put the Justice Center in grave danger on the night of the blackout.

Jail administrator Ken Kochevar and his staff - scrambled impressively when the lights went out. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Jail administrator Ken Kochevar and his staff scrambled impressively when the lights went out.
Judge Eileen Gallagher was conducting a capital murder trial when the room fell dark. The August 14 blackout interrupted testimony against Lawrence Royster, a defendant accused of shooting an East Side drug dealer and then setting fire to his house to conceal the crime.

The witness on the stand, Dennis Williams, had already pleaded guilty to manslaughter, arson, and robbery charges. He told jurors it was Royster who fired the fatal bullet into the dealer's head.

When the lights went out, all 300 pounds of Williams sat only a few feet from Juror No. 1. A potential weapon, an oxygen tank, was within his grasp. "It was a horrible situation," Gallagher says. "It was complete blackness, not a breath of light."

Pandemonium did not descend on the crowded courtroom, however. Sheriff's deputies, acting quickly and without prompting, hustled Royster and Williams through the side door reserved for courtroom participants who wear chains. The judge and her bailiff opened back doors, allowing natural light to cut the darkness. Juror No. 1 carried a penlight.

The entire court complex had lost power. But unlike most hospitals, prisons, and other 24-hour facilities, the Justice Center is not equipped with an emergency generator. Cost overruns excised a generator from the original design; requests in later years were denied.

Remarkably, no one was hurt seriously during the blackout. Sheriff's deputies maintained control of 1,950 inmates in the jail despite losing power to the lights, sliding doors, alarms, elevators, water pump, and ventilation systems. Hot, stale air filled the jail floors, prompting three ambulance calls. One officer, Mark Belle, hoisted an asthmatic inmate on his shoulder and carried him down nine flights of stairs. "Why we didn't have a tragedy is beyond us," says the jail administrator, Ken Kochevar.

The 2003 blackout was unprecedented in its scale. Yet even after the recent scares of Y2K and 9-11, Justice Center stairwells lacked emergency lighting. Judge Gallagher and her bailiff scrounged for candles before her courtroom made the 23-story descent. On the way down, Gallagher's party met a secretary who was afraid to leave her floor because she suffered from night blindness. They coaxed her down by counting out the steps. "September 11 happened two years ago," Gallagher says. "There's no excuse for this."

The lack of preparedness begins with the complex's construction in 1976. Tom Monahan, the building's superintendent when it opened, says a generator became an extravagance when construction costs soared. Riots at the notorious Tombs in Manhattan, for one, convinced planners that individual cells, rather than a dormitory setting, were needed to contain inmates. "Instantly, they were over budget," Monahan says.

To save money, builders omitted floors, elevators, light switches -- and a generator. In the event of a power failure, the complex would switch from Muny Light to the Illuminating Company or vice versa. Later, county administrators were assured that multiple First Energy lines would deliver uninterrupted power. "They felt that the dual feeds from dual substations would be sufficient," says Jay Ross, the current director of Central Services. "No one really thought of a total blackout."

County employees past and present might dispute that last assertion. Monahan says he included a generator in his yearly budget requests, as did county architect Berj Shakarian. Shakarian says he stopped asking for a generator in 1993, when the dual-substation plan was deemed acceptable. "I disagreed, but was overruled," he says.

Shakarian compares operating a 24-hour building without a generator to "playing Russian roulette." At the time he left the Justice Center in 1990, Monahan lobbied for a cogeneration system, which would have allowed the Justice Center to produce its own electric power and steam heat from a single source, like natural gas. "It was a good concept, and it would have worked," he says.

County leaders always said that the initial outlay was too great. Never mind that, in the long run, taxpayers would pay even more. After the Justice Center opened, Monahan installed light switches -- once deemed too expensive -- in parts of the complex in an effort to trim energy costs.

Y2K worried officials, but only for a moment. The county rented generators for the event, and when the danger passed, the units were returned.

The blackout, an emergency that didn't appear on any calendar, forced the county to scramble. With little more planning than a phone number stuck to the wall, it took nine hours to locate and install generators. Power at the Justice Center was restored at 1 a.m., just as generators became operational.

The county has decided finally to install a permanent generator (approximate cost: $500,000). "The sheriff has made it clear that he does not want to see that happen again, and I agree with him," Ross says. In the meantime, two rented units sit in semi-trailers on the sidewalk along Lakeside Avenue, taunting the county at a price of $80,000 a month.

While a prior generation of administrators shares responsibility for the absence of a generator, blame for poor lighting in the stairwells rests with a more recent regime. The county had bought emergency lighting equipment in the mid-1990s, but it was never fully installed. "I got from the basement to the fourth floor," says David Washington, the Justice Center trades foreman who retired three years ago. "They told me to stop."

Washington says the project was abandoned because the county balked at paying the overtime necessary to complete the project. "They didn't want to pay the premium rate," he says.

Ross says the lights in question were purchased in 1996, a year before he became Central Services director. The lights were diverted from the courts tower and installed instead in a nearby parking garage, Ross says, "and no one, at that point, thought we needed to come back and take care of issues with the stairwell."

Lights that weren't used in the parking garage sat on a Justice Center loading deck, and their batteries died from inactivity. After the blackout, the county purchased 160 new emergency lamps for the Justice Center stairwells. They were installed last week.

Despite the dangers posed to Justice Center workers and visitors, top elected officials have offered no public rebukes. "Nobody was hurt, and everybody made the best of the bad situation," Presiding Judge Richard McMonagle says, adding that safety measures, like glow sticks, had been tested for use in the courts tower prior to the blackout. "If [the blackout] would have happened two months from now, you wouldn't have a story."

Says County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones: "There's nobody I'm interested in blaming. I'm much more interested in determining the shortcomings and fixing them."

Still, some county workers are grumbling that necessity needn't have been the mother of prompt corrective action. They say Ross and his chiefs had been notified previously about the dangers in the stairwells as well as the aging generator at Juvenile Hall, which did not function properly. "They were warned and pleaded with to correct these problems, and they didn't do it," says one county worker. Says another tradesman: "There's not a lot of debate that goes on."

One worker also complains that Ross, Deputy Director Bart Leneghan, and Facilities Manager Carl Fixler did not exert themselves during the crisis. "There's an old saying that half the job is showing up," an anonymous county employee wrote, in a letter sent to Scene. "These three well-paid employees hardly did that."

Ross disputes the suggestion that there was a lack of effort on senior management's part. He says he worked the phones from his office until 10:30 p.m. on blackout Thursday, while Leneghan was out sick and Fixler's car had run out of gas. "There's not much one can do when they're home sick; Carl came back and was here much of the night, and I talked to gobs of people from 4 o'clock on," Ross says.

As for the stairwell lights, Ross does not recall a stern warning passing across his desk. "I have not seen stuff in writing that said a year ago there was no lighting in there," he says. "If I had gotten a letter to that effect, it would have been forwarded and dealt with."

A week after power was restored in Cleveland, the jury dealt with Lawrence Royster. He was found guilty of arson and robbery, but cleared of the murder charge.

Like the county on the night of the blackout, his day could have been a lot worse.

More by David W. Martin

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