Outback shocker left Aussie techie with a secret not worth sharing

That's not an outage … that's an outage

Who, Me? G'day readers, and welcome once again to The Register's reader-submitted column of cold comfort that we call Who, Me? where you find out that everyone – even clever clogs like you – makes mistakes.

This week, meet a hero we'll Regomize as "Mick" who worked for "a large Aussie telco" in the 1990s (a time when there were not exactly a plethora of large Aussie telcos, so that narrows it down a bit).

One fine day Mick found himself having to head out to somewhere between the Queensland towns of Mt Isa and Townsville. For the unfamiliar, much of the 900kms between the towns offers is hot desert famed for its heat, red dust, and lethal nastiness.

The unstaffed telephone exchange in this remote location required the installation of two 16-amp rack-head fuses on its 50 volt main power cables. Mick notes that this was an unusual requirement, as equipment racks usually only needed one fuse. But in this case the equipment was particularly power hungry – thus the two.

The other trick was that the installation had to be done while the power was live. It was, after all, a telephone exchange, so shutting it down for any length of time would represent a great pain in the proverbial.

The cables, and thus the fuses, were mounted to the steel framework above the racks. As a cautious electrician, Mick naturally insulated all of the steel with plastic wrap to avoid mishaps. The installation of the first fuse proceeded perfectly.

Unfortunately (you knew there had to be an "unfortunately") he made the mistake of connecting the fuse to the earth cable on the rack – a length on uninsulated braided stainless steel cable about 5mm in diameter. When he started to install the second fuse, the braided cable "shorted to the positive pole" as Mick told Who, Me?

What that means, for those unfamiliar with sparkie jargon, is that there was an almighty flash and bang as the earth cable instantly vaporized. It also blew the main 100 amp fuse – cutting power to the entire exchange.

Remember how we didn't want to do that?

Panic set in, as Mick started frantically searching for a replacement fuse. Within a few minutes he had found one and reinstalled it, then waited as the exchange gradually came back online. A few things had to be manually reset.

All that remained was to finish the job he was there to do and head back to Townsville.

Only when he got back to home base there was discussion of this mysterious phone outage that had taken out all phone traffic west from roughly where Mick had just been all the way to Darwin in the Northern Territory – 1,600kms up the road from Mt Isa. No-one could explain quite what had happened or how. Mick, in his wisdom, joined in on the dumbstruck speculation.

To this day he's pretty sure no-one knows what really happened.

If you're holding onto a deep dark secret about a tech disaster that you know more about than you've ever let on, an email to Who, Me? is the forum to let it out. We may share your story – anonymously of course – to brighten your fellow readers' Monday morning. Go on, you'll feel better. ®

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