Editor’s Note: In this special edition of “Back in Time,” we take a look back at August, 1976, when a fire at the local telephone company resulted in widespread phone outages throughout the Mebane area. At the time, in the era before internet, the Mebane community relied on the Enterprise to keep it informed about the latest developments. The 1976 phone outage was a part of the recent Mebane Historical Museum discussion on the history of the Mebane Enterprise.
August 25, 1976
By Andy Mann
Technicians from Mebane Home Telephone, Southern Bell, and the General Telephone Company are hard at work today attempting to increase service in the Mebane area from 140 connections to about 700 connections within a day or so.
Mebane Home President W.R. Hupman, strained by the fire loss of service in the 919-563 exchange, was at a command post in the recently-constructed, but as-yet inoperable new equipment building along Center Street.
Hupman was conversing with telephone company officials from various parts of the south in attempts to obtain emergency equipment to renew service in the area.
He said service was being provided to the telephones of “essential connections,” such as law enforcement and fire offices, doctors, ministers, and major industry through the use of a PBX unit in the new building.
The mobile emergency unit to provide that 700 additional lines, provided by General Telephone, is located now at the new building, but was not operable at press time.
Asked if the same “essential” rules of thumb would be used in a decision concerning which customers would be connected when the 700 lines are operable, Hupman replied, “Not necessarily, because there are engineering problems we have to deal with.”
Hupman said the cause of the fire in the currently-used equipment building, located between the new building and the Mebane Volunteer Fire Department along Center Street, is believed to have been a “short circuit in a booster bay.”
He said a booster bay was special equipment used to increase the power of a telephone signal for long-distance communication. Hupman also said, “We’ll probably never know for sure. This is just a theory.”
Firemen from throughout Alamance County responded to the Mebane disaster. They came mostly in small groups because it was quickly discovered fire extinguishers would have to be used to fight the unusual fire. If the firemen had attempted to fight the fire with water there would have been an additional element of danger because of all the electrical equipment in the building. Several firemen suffered discomfort from inhaling smoke generated by smoldering wire insulation.
Mebane Volunteer Fireman Jack Lancaster said, “Almost all of us had to take oxygen after being in there. I’ve never been in anything like that. The type of smoke did something strange. It made my ears seem like something was pounding on them from the inside.”
The smoke has been compared to mustard gas used in combat during World War II.
Hupman said an estimate of a monetary loss “is impossible at this time.”
He said completion of the new equipment building, originally scheduled for November, would be attempted by October 1, and it is possible full service to the Mebane area will not be restored until that time.
While telephone company officials are attempting to deal with the loss of service, volunteer ham radio operators have come from throughout North Carolina to help with an emergency communications system hastily organized after the fire Monday.
The Bell Telephone Company office in Winston-Salem has allowed employees time off from their regular duties if they wish to volunteer to man 11 emergency message relay points set up in and around Mebane.
As of 10:00 a.m. today, the most serious call relayed was by a unit stationed at the Alamance-Orange water plant. Mark McIntyre, in charge of the 160 or so volunteer radio operators, would not divulge the name of the victim, but said a person employed “in a local industry” suffered a heart attack, and that the ham operator summoned the Alamance County Rescue Service, which responded and transported the victim to a local hospital.