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Winter 2000


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Y2K MINUS ONE


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Y2K minus one

January 1, 2000 · 12:45 a.m. · Physical Plant


Power plant manager Bill Viecelli collecting ash from the coal-fired boilers.

On New Year’s Eve Y2K minus one, UMass was a virtual ghost town, with only an occasional police cruiser traversing its darkened and eerily empty streets. Among the few buildings where anyone seemed to be at home, physical plant – that hunky complex sitting just west of the Textbook Annex and including the campus smokestacks – was lit with an especially welcoming glow.

     “You really accept it as part of the job,” said physical plant director Earl Smith about spending New Year’s Eve at work. “You know there’s sometimes you just have to be here.” At a statewide forum last summer, said Smith, citizens airing Y2K fears “were saying, ‘Something is going to happen, make us feel good.’ It’s our job to run the systems so everyone will feel good.”

     It was definitely a feel-good scene at “plant,” as habituès call the complex, at about 11:40 p.m. on New Years Eve. Nearly fifty workers bustled about in the tool and lock shops, at the telephones, around the central computers. Teams were ready to head out at the stroke of midnight and check every building to ensure that all was in order. Workers were walking past with heaping plates of chicken wings and sugar-covered cookies. A policeman dropped by for a snack and confirmed that, so far, all was quiet.

     By 11:50, Smith and eight or so others were assembled in the front office, watching television coverage of the festivities in Times Square and in the closer-to-home metropolis of downtown Northampton.

     “What if the ball doesn’t drop, will that be Y2K?” a grinning Smith inquired.

     “These people lead big lives,” remarked someone else, observing the jubilant faces beaming in from New York City.

     “Happy New Year, we made it,” exclaimed Smith as the ball in fact dropped and the year rolled over to 2000. Then the team scattered for on-the-spot checks. For Smith, it was over to the massive power plant next door, with its decades-old industrial works right out of the pages of Jules Verne. The atmosphere is sooty and hot in the power plant and a loud hum fills the air. As steam tunnel foreman Jeff Price asserts, “You clearly expect to see Captain Nemo out back.” Some 98 percent of campus buildings are heated with steam produced in the plant and carried to its destinations through twenty-six miles of underground pipes.

     Here, as elsewhere on campus, Smith and his crew were glad to discover that as little that was untoward occurred at UMass as occurred anywhere else in the world. (Although there were late-breaking surprises: Smith discovered on December 30 that emissions monitors on the smokestacks weren’t Y2K-compliant.) That everything went smoothly was no big surprise to Smith, a twenty-year veteran of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps, or for any of these front-line soldiers in the army of workers who keep the 354 big and small buildings of the campus illuminated, heated, and connected by telephone and computer. For them, this New Year’s Eve was the culmination of more than a year-and-a-half worth of preparations.

     The momentous midnight past, Bill Viecelli, power plant manager, led Smith on a sort of valedictory tour of the boilers. This night, as always, neither the old equipment nor the workers had let the campus down. “We’ve never had a problem where we can’t take care of the campus,” Viecelli said proudly. Then he shook hands with his workers, in recognition of a New Year and of a job well done.

– Mary Carey
 
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