Workers in the 18-story Rotary International building in downtown Evanston got an unexpected early start to their holiday weekend after the building suffered a power failure during the noon hour today.

Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky said the Fire Department received a call at 12:38 p.m. that a transformer had blown on the building’s top floor.

“It affected the whole building,” he said, and with elevators out of service, building occupants had to walk down stairs to exit the darkened building, although Chief Berkowsky said firefighters were able to get one elevator running to assist people with mobility issues to get out.

Several hundred workers milled around on the sidewalk across the street from the tower through the early afternoon waiting for word on when the power might be restored.

Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, which has its offices in the building, said that by 2 p.m. workers had been told they’d be allowed back into the building in small groups to retrieve their personal belongings.

Chief Berkowsky said that as late as 3 p.m. the 15th through 18th floors were still closed off to employees, but workers on lower floors had been able to retrieve their gear. “At this point everyone’s been sent home,” he said.

He said no injuries were reported in the incident and that smoke from the electrical problem on the 18th floor dissipated pretty quickly.

“The most difficult issue was trying to communicate to everybody what’s going on,” the chief said. He said the building’s staff “did a nice job” using bullhorns to keep tenants posted and that he also sent firefighters through the crowd to share information.

Commonwealth Edison and Evanston Fire Department crews were still on the scene at midafternoon.

A Com Ed spokesman, Jeff Burdick, said the problem was reported at 12:49 p.m. He described the problem as originating with a cable fault in an upper floor of the building.

The spokesman said the power failure affected the lower level and ground floor of the building as well as floors 3, 7, 12, 15 and 18Â He said crews were working to reroute power cables to the building and that by 2:45 p.m. power had been restored to all but the top floor.

Chief Berkowsky said his department had seven firefighters and four vehicles on the scene.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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