Yeltsin upstages Y2K

The switch to double zeroes proved so uneventful, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners even yanked a scheduled follow-up report from its Jan. 4 meeting agenda. Said County Manager Wanda Greene: “Nothing much happened. [The staff report on Y2K] would have been a blank page.”

Sure, there was plenty of anticipation — all those new computers, backup generators, extra staff on duty: When Asheville’s First Night celebration got rolling at 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, you could spot a pair of police officers at every corner. That early in the evening, they all had the keen-eyed look of men and women intent on watching everything, waiting, radioing in to home base — the city’s Y2K Center, in the newly renovated Municipal Building.

“We have 50 extra officers on duty,” reported city Public Relations Coordinator Robin Nix when Mountain Xpress visited the Y2K Center, shortly after midnight. “But they don’t have much to do. That’s good!”

City department heads didn’t have much to do, either, except watch the television news, eat pizza, drink coffee, work on their laptop computers, or read a book. “We’re bored to death,” confessed City Manager Jim Westbrook. City customer-service workers who had been standing by all evening — in case someone phoned about a problem or concern — had received “zip,” he added.

What about the city fire trucks — including the big ladder rig — that roared out of the bay some minutes after midnight, lights whirling and sirens whining, as First Night fireworks blasted up above? “The hospital was running an [alarm-system] test, but didn’t tell [us],” Westbrook explained.

OK, but what about the stuck elevator in the Biltmore Building at midnight? “We had 15 people stuck in the elevator, including one belligerent individual who … required police assistance,” Fire Chief John Rukavina revealed.

“Overcrowding,” First Night volunteers called it. Xpress was there with a number of other event co-sponsors, watching the fireworks from the rooftop. It was the rush to beat the end-of-event traffic that stalled the elevator — prompting volunteers to direct exiting spectators down the perfectly Y2K-compliant system called “stairs.” And, once the human-error glitch was fixed, an event volunteer couldn’t help observing, “It’s OK now — nothing Y2K.” She paused to put her hand on my shoulder, before adding, “But you go first!”

Down the street at Buncombe County’s emergency-operations center, the first thing Xpress heard was laughter in the hallways. A television crew was setting up to broadcast from command central, but firefighters and paramedics handling the phones played a joke on the reporter: They started calling each other’s phones, to make things appear a bit busier than the dullsville they’d endured all evening. “Pardon me,” said one worker after picking up the phone, “Do you have any Grey Poupon?”

In a more serious vein, Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun reported that nothing much had happened all evening.

And volunteer ham-radio operator Tommy Queen — on hand as backup to the county’s new, high-tech 911 system — said: “Now, Hurricane Floyd, that was a big one. They had me worked ragged for that one.” And, just in case Y2K heated up, he had volunteer operators on standby, just a click of his shortwave radio away. He ran down a list of names and numbers — volunteers scattered all over the county. “We’ve got it covered,” Queen declared.

Still, as Rukavina later observed, “If we’d all been home and something had happened, people would have been [upset].”

How about the global picture? A CNN report on New Year’s celebrations in China mentioned that, by their calendar, this is the year 2453 (meaning we’ve effectively missed the new millennium, anyway). And Bruce McConnell, director of the International Y2K Cooperation Center, reported on C-Span, “We have no significant incidents to report.” There was the odd case of door locks not working at a power plant in Spain, and older VHF radios malfunctioning on some ships at sea — all pretty anticlimactic.

As Asheville City Council member Brian Peterson commented, from the Biltmore Building rooftop, “They had all those folks in Russia monitoring the nuclear plants and arsenals for Y2K glitches, and the big surprise was [President Boris] Yeltsin stepping down.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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