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A Pacific Gas and Electric substation struck by vandals in April 2013.

Jim Wilson • New York Times,

Who knocked out 17 giant transformers in Calif. — and why?

  • Article by: Richard A. Serrano and Evan Halper
  • Los Angeles Times
  • February 12, 2014 - 8:19 PM

– They came after midnight, two or more armed individuals who cut telecommunication cables in an underground vault and outsmarted security cameras and motion sensors at the power substation in a remote corner of Santa Clara County.

At daylight, FBI agents began poring over time-lapse photographs from the surveillance cameras. But the photos revealed only muzzle flashes from a semi-automatic weapon and sparks as shots hit rows of transformers. There was not a face, not a shadow, of who was doing the firing.

The shooters vanished before the first police arrived.

The military-style raid on April 16 knocked out 17 giant transformers at the Metcalf Transmission Substation, which feeds power to Silicon Valley. The FBI is still working the case, and agents say they are confident it was not the work of terrorists.

What they do not have is a motive, fingerprints or suspects. Theories are piling up.

Was it a gang bent on eco-terrorism? Was it a test of the vulnerability of the electrical grid? Was it a dress rehearsal for a larger attack to come?

Was it an inside job by disgruntled Pacific Gas and Electric Co. employees? Was it related to the bombing of the Boston Marathon across the country only 13 hours earlier?

Utility officials quickly rerouted power around the site, and nearby power plants picked up the slack, so there was no major blackout. And no one was injured. But it took utility crews nearly a month to repair the damage.

Four Democratic senators, including California’s Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, on Friday urged utility regulators to increase security at power plants and substations around the nation. They said the “sophisticated attack” was a “wake-up call” about threats to crucial infrastructure.

Warnings of attacks on grid

“We ought to be hyper-alert,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., whose district includes the substation that was attacked. “These were pros.”

Counterterrorism officials have repeatedly warned of a potential cyberattack that could disable or crash electric grids, causing outages and billions of dollars in damage, and federal authorities and utilities have rushed to beef up their digital defenses. But the assault 15 miles southeast of San Jose was decidedly low-tech.

Law enforcement sources say the gunmen fired 120 rounds from a high-powered rifle and that nearly every shot hit the transformers 40 yards away in a 20-minute period.

The transformers began to leak thousands of gallons of oil. They overheated and shut down, but did not explode.

The attackers managed “to disable these transformers without blowing them up and attracting attention,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif.

Officials say the attackers brought night-vision scopes for their weapons, used heavy wire cutters to snip fiber-optic cables in a bunker and knew which manholes to open to reach the right cables.

The team briefly disabled the 911 emergency system and phone lines. They set off a motion detector by the fence before leaving, but the facility sits beside U.S. 101, a convenient escape route.

Knew what they were doing

They were “clearly knowledgeable” about the layout of the substation and its communication systems, said one federal official, who, like others, was speaking confidentially.

The perpetrators arrived shortly before 1 a.m. and were gone 52 minutes later. Apparently the first call to authorities came from a driver speeding by on U.S. 101. He told police in Gilroy that “fireworks” were coming from the substation.

An operator at the Metcalf Energy Center, beside the substation, placed an emergency call about the same time.

Then the trail went dry.

“These guys took pains to make sure they would not be detected,” a federal official said. “And they got away.”

Sources said investigators had found no fingerprints on the shell casings, no matchable boot prints and no tire tracks.

A four-minute black-and-white surveillance video, which the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office posted online, shows little more than a line of trees and flashes of light along a chain-link perimeter fence.

No phone calls, e-mails or letters have claimed responsibility, “at least none that are credible,” one official said.

No composite drawings of possible suspects have been released. Few clues have emerged since authorities issued a news release after the attack saying that “no suspect information is available.”

© 2014 Star Tribune