A massive power outage caused chaos in Moscow on Wednesday, stranding about 20 000 people in underground metro tunnels, disrupting traffic above ground and leaving large sections of the Russian capital without electricity.
Traffic lights went out, creating enormous jams, and trolley buses and trams ground to a halt, while cellphone networks crashed.
More than 20 medical establishments switched to generators and one of Moscow’s stock exchanges suspended trading.
Amid soaring temperatures and sticky weather, 1 500 people were reported to have been stranded in lifts, while many thousands struggled to get into overcrowded buses, or flag down the remaining taxis.
The blackout, blamed on an accident at an ageing Soviet-era power plant in the south of the bustling metropolis, hit four southern districts, striking at about 11am local time.
Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu said services would not be fully restored before 7pm.
All rescue services and emergency medical services were on standby, an official at the ministry for emergency situations told RIA Novosti. Military electricity reserves were made available for civilian use, the agency said.
President Vladimir Putin suspended a trip to the Rostov region and the government went into an emergency meeting.
One report said effects were felt as far as Tula, 300km south of Moscow, where the breakdown led to an explosion and a leak of gas from a factory.
A slightly toxic cloud was floating from the Novomoskovsky Azots factory toward the town, according to Interfax news agency, although the emergency situations ministry in Moscow did not confirm this.
Authorities sourced the crash to the Chagino power plant, which runs on equipment installed more than four decades ago.
”The power cut was caused by an explosion and a fire,” Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko, told the State Duma, the Lower House of the national Parliament.
Officials ruled out terrorism and Russia’s electricity monopoly United Energy Systems (UES) spokesperson Margarita Nagoga blamed the outage on old equipment.
According to Nagoga, a small fire had already erupted in the Chagino plant the evening before, but was quickly extinguished.
”However, in the end the age of the technical equipment caused the current accident, which employees were not able to stop.”
A UES executive said several consecutive days of hot weather may have played a role.
But Putin said the state giant should not seek excuses, Interfax reported.
”One can clearly speak of insufficient attention from UES to the daily running of the company. You must not only look after general policy problems in the company and its reform, but also pay attention to day-to-day matters.”
Anatoly Chubais, the politically powerful head of UES, said he was ready to take responsibility and apologised, Interfax said.
While the authorities struggled to restore power supplies, news emerged of a broken water pipe inundating a major road in the south-east of the capital. A 200m stretch of Volgogradsky Prospekt was under 20cm to 30cm of water, Interfax news agency said. — Sapa-AFP