SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Much of Puerto Rico was without electricity Thursday following a fire at a power plant that set off a broader outage across the island's aging utility grid, leaving most of the island's 3.5 million people without service.
The vast majority of Puerto Ricans don't have generators and they were forced to spend the night in darkness and without air conditioning in the tropical heat. They awoke to find most businesses and public offices closed, with the officials saying it could be 24 hours before power would be restored.
"Puerto Rico is not prepared for something like this," said 23-year-old Celestino Ayala Santiago, who slept in his car so he could have some air conditioning to escape the heat.
The roar of generators and the smell of diesel fuel filled the morning air, as the temperature rose to around 90 degrees. There were long lines at fast food restaurants with power, but traffic was light, as people stayed away work.
Smaller, more localized power outages are common in Puerto Rico, which has an outdated energy infrastructure, but not on this scale except following tropical storms. "This is an apocalypse," said 43-year-old Jose Tavela as he ate breakfast at a small cafe in the capital that had a generator.
Utility officials said they were trying to determine what caused the fire that broke out Wednesday afternoon at the Aguirre power plant in the southern town of Salinas and triggered the larger outage.
The fire apparently knocked out a transmission line that serves the broader grid, which automatically shut itself down as a preventive measure, said Yohari Molina, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
Gov. Alejandro Garcia-Padilla said at a news conference that a switch where the fire broke out had been properly maintained, rejecting suggestions that the outage stemmed from maintenance problems that have plagued the utility for years, largely a result of the island's deep economic and fiscal crisis.
As soon as the power failed, roads that are clogged with traffic on a normal day were plunged into chaos as streetlights went out. Businesses closed, long lines formed at gas stations and rooms quickly filled at hotels with generators. Many Puerto Ricans dragged mattresses out to balconies and porches to spend the night outside, doing what they could to ward off mosquitoes in the still air.
"To see everything blacked out, my God," said Virginia Davila, a nurse's assistant who lives on the 11th floor of an apartment building in San Juan.
Javier Quintana, executive director of the Electric Power Authority, said power was restored to more than 130,000 of the total of 1.5 million customers by early Thursday morning and that it may be back to normal on Friday.
The governor warned it would be a slow process. "Given that the system is so old, numerous setbacks could occur," he said. "The system is not designed to withstand a failure of this magnitude."
Many Puerto Ricans expressed doubts that power would be restored quickly, saying the economic slump has affected basic government services. Hundreds of people took to social media to criticize the Electric Power Authority, noting that they already pay bills on average twice that of the U.S. mainland.
It was unclear how much damage the fire caused or where the power company would obtain the money to repair or buy new equipment. The utility is struggling with a $9 billion debt that it hopes to restructure as it faces numerous corruption allegations. Company officials have said they are seeking more revenue to update what they say is outdated equipment.
The governor, however, said that no amount of money or maintenance would have prevented the fire. He said the switch where the fire began had received proper maintenance.
Authorities said Wednesday's outage caused 15 fires across Puerto Rico as a result of malfunctioning generators, including at the upscale Vanderbilt Hotel in the popular tourist area of Condado and at the mayor's office in the northern coastal town of Catano. All those fires were extinguished and no one was injured, officials said.
The blackout knocked out traffic lights, snarling the island's roads. Businesses, universities and government offices closed early, putting even more cars on chaotic roads. Some people opted to not go home and hotels in the capital of San Juan quickly filled up.
As the sun set, people crowded into restaurants running on generators. Others chatted with neighbors while standing or sitting at opened doors and windows trying to beat the night heat.