A massive power blackout which crippled Italy and left most of its 57 million people without electricity for hours was today blamed ... on a tree.
Italians awoke this morning to find their phone lines silent and their televisions black, while drivers struggled through streets without traffic lights and dozens of trains remained stuck on the tracks.
This afternoon it emerged that a tree which hit a Swiss electricity transmission line – and the almost simultaneous collapse of two French high voltage power lines – caused the blackouts.
But a Swiss power company which identified the primary causes said the ultimate blame lay with Italian grid operators.
“We are working on the assumption that the blackout was caused by a connection error by an Italian grid operator,” Rolf Schmid, spokesman of the Atel power company, told Swiss television.
The company, one of Switzerland’s power providers, insisted that it had reacted correctly and did not consider itself liable for damages.
An Atel company statement said that around 3am (1am Irish time) a 380,000 volt transmission line that transports power above the Lukmanier mountain pass in central Switzerland to Italy was disrupted because of branches hitting the wires near the town of Brunnen.
This subsequently caused another transmission line in Switzerland to drop out when it became overloaded.
“Almost simultaneously, according to our preliminary investigations, two French transmission lines dropped out as well,” said Schmid.
“After that, all connections to Italy dropped out.”
He said the exact reason for the domino-effect was still being investigated.
Atel said that cuts on individual lines were nothing out of the ordinary and the problem boiled down to lack of coordination.
“Because of the high volume of exported power to Italy, it is vital that the network operators can be quickly coordinated and react correctly.
“Evidently in this instance, this didn’t work sufficiently,” a company statement said.
In Italy, electricity had returned to much of north by mid-morning, while power came back erratically to most of Rome at around noon.
But parts of southern Italy were still without electricity this afternoon.
Authorities urged citizens not to panic.
“Everybody stay calm,” said Civil Defence chief Guido Bertolaso. “There is no major crisis at the moment.”
Premier Silvio Berlusconi was “closely following events,” his spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, said.
At a darkened cafe in Rome – one of many hit during an all-night city festival - manager Massimo Purificato complained that without his espresso machine and the ability to make croissants he couldn’t keep a customer in the place.
“All the ice creams are melting. It’s a disaster,” he said. “We’ve lost money and clients. We’ve lost a lot of business.”
Fabrizio Volpi, a 21-year-old student, was briefly stuck in a nightclub after the power dropped and the lights went out. “There was panic, especially from the women,” he said.
Hospitals used generators to keep crucial equipment running, emergency centres were flooded with calls, and traffic accidents occurred as drivers zoomed towards intersections lacking traffic lights.
Airports turned on generators to light up runways, although many flights were delayed and a few cancelled.
Some 110 trains were stopped across the nation with 30,000 passengers on board, and hundreds of people were stranded during Rome’s all-night festival which was supposed to keep museums and restaurants open around the clock.
The city had encouraged Romans and tourists to use public transport, but many stranded travellers ended up sleeping in the out-of-service subway stations.
The Vatican was also affected, with St. Peter’s Basilica – normally lit up overnight – in darkness.
When Pope John Paul II delivered his weekly address, the Vatican had to amplify his remarks with a backup generator, while journalists huddled with candles and flashlights in the Holy See press office.
Amid it all, many Italian cities were tormented by the din of burglar alarms, which were tripped by the power cuts.
Atel officials in Switzerland said the company should not be held liable for damages.
It said high winds played a role in the incident, even though a 20 meter-wide corridor was cut through woods surrounding overhead power cables – twice as much as legally demanded – to try to prevent damage from branches.
The Atel comments confirmed earlier statements by French officials that the disabled line in Switzerland led to some problems in Austria and then led to the shock to the line between France and Italy.
“The French electric network is not at all at the origin of this general incident on the Italian side,” grid operator Reseau de Transport de l’Electricite director Andre Merlin told France-Info radio.
Martin Renggli, a senior official with the Federal Office for Energy, his country was anxious to safeguard its reputation as a reliable energy source.
Switzerland is one of the main providers of electricity to Italy as well as a key relay circuit between northern and southern Europe. It exports roughly as much as it consumes.
In addition to the Italian power failure, there were also power cuts, starting shortly after 3.20am and lasting less than one hour, in the southern Swiss states of Ticino and Grison, which neighbour Italy.
Parts of Geneva, including the airport, also suffered brief power cuts overnight, but officials said this did not appear to be related to the problems in southern Switzerland and Italy and was more likely because of a local storm.
Rail traffic between Switzerland and Italy gradually returned to normal as the day progressed, Swiss railways said.