DEATH COMES FOR THE DESERT | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


Glen Christensen's life came to its untimely end as the sun dawned on the hottest day ever recorded in the City of Phoenix. Christensen was asleep in his bedroom at the Fontanelle Supervisory Care Home when the building's air-conditioning system broke down around 2 a.m. on June 26, 1990. A...
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Glen Christensen's life came to its untimely end as the sun dawned on the hottest day ever recorded in the City of Phoenix. Christensen was asleep in his bedroom at the Fontanelle Supervisory Care Home when the building's air-conditioning system broke down around 2 a.m. on June 26, 1990.

A Fontanelle employee who passed Christensen's room a couple of hours later recalled that he appeared comfortable, snoring peacefully behind his bushy, sand-colored beard, despite the mounting heat inside the home. But at 8:27 that morning, Christensen was found dead in his bed.

By midafternoon, the temperature would reach 122 degrees in downtown Phoenix. The county coroner said Christensen, who had been haunted by mental illness since his teens, was on antipsychotic prescription medication which may have slowed his reactions. But the coroner was unequivocal about the cause of death. Glen Christensen, thirty, was killed by the heat.

For two days before Christensen's death, the Valley had been enduring heat so intense it played tricks with a person's judgment, distorted images across the hot pavement and bathed the land in blinding white light. Sky Harbor International Airport shut down for the first time in its history, its departing flights unable to achieve altitude amid the giddy thermals dancing off the desert floor.

At such times, it becomes clear why almost everything in Phoenix--homes, businesses, even cars--is air conditioned. Without air conditioning, the desert presents a lethal menace to any person or animal made even slightly vulnerable by age or infirmity, or simple ill fortune.

And without affordable electricity to power their air conditioners, the poor, especially the elderly on fixed incomes, sometimes pay with their lives.

Cristensen was not alone. He was one of sixteen people to die in the June heat wave in Phoenix. Eleven of the victims died at home because their air conditioning malfunctioned or was turned off to save money. Altogether, 22 people died from heat-related causes in the Valley this year.

This silently unfolding tragedy was the second worst natural disaster to hit the nation in 1990, a fact that remained unreported until now. Heat-induced deaths were not chronicled in the press.

And yet, more people were killed in June alone than from any other God-inflicted cause west of the Mississippi this year.

At the time Glen Christensen's body was discovered, Jeff Ackerman was examining with growing concern the numbers on his computer terminal 450 miles to the northeast, in the relative cool of Montrose, Colorado. Ackerman supervises power dispatching for the Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency which markets and transmits electricity over an area encompassing 1.3 million square miles. Seated at his terminal screen in the nerve center of the sprawling power complex, Ackerman can summon every detail of the operation, from an instantaneous systemwide load forecast to the location of a first-aid kit inside a power-plant control room hundreds of miles away.

On this particular day, the information blinking onto Ackerman's screen had assumed a pattern as disturbing as the accelerating gyre of a hurricane. He could see a crisis developing at the end of the twin 345-kilovolt transmission lines supplying power to the Phoenix area from Glen Canyon Dam, Western's biggest power producer.

A dense blanket of heat had settled over the entire southwestern quadrant of the country, pushing temperatures to record levels from the California coast as far north and east as Denver. The telephone lines were alive with utility planners searching for additional sources of power to feed the demand on their systems.

The network of transmission systems connecting public and private utilities throughout the region allows power suppliers to draw on each other's reserves in case a plant or a line breaks down. Utilities routinely engage in the practice of "power wheeling" to meet demand, and most often their customers need never be troubled with warnings about brownouts or mandatory power cutbacks.

But in this case, heavy system demand was not the only problem converging on central Arizona. As the daily highs in Phoenix rose above 110 degrees, then topped 120 and continued to climb to an unheard-of 122 degrees, a significant portion of the region's generating capacity was not functioning, Ackerman discovered.

Unit one of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station was down, as were a couple of nuclear plants in California. Several of the area's biggest coal-fired power plants, including units supplying Phoenix from the Four Corners power complex, were also off-line.

As if things weren't bad enough, lightning had ignited a wildfire on the parched slopes of the Mogollon Rim that now threatened to engulf not one but all the main transmission lines bringing electricity to the Phoenix area from various sources on the Colorado Plateau. The so-called Dude Fire, one of the deadliest in state history, took the lives of six volunteer firefighters and destroyed thousands of dollars in property before it was brought under control.

Within Western's Montrose facility, power dispatchers sat in the main operations room, nicknamed "the war room," before a huge semicircular wall paneled with lighted schematics and monitors, watching the news get worse and worse. Ackerman and his colleagues, who normally plan system loads two days in advance, began sweating in earnest as a plague of transmission problems thwarted their efforts to wheel in replacement power.

"We had scheduled 200 megawatts from the Rocky Mountain Power Co-op, but then Denver got so hot the equipment in their power plant couldn't function to its maximum, so there was no surplus for us to take," Ackerman says of one such mishap.

"We didn't know when we came to work Friday if we'd have the juice to supply our utilities through the weekend, when residential demand is at its highest," Ackerman says. "Out of a total of 145,000 megawatts of generating capacity in the Southwest, only 125

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