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20 years ago, Y2K became the crisis that wasn’t

Are you ready for Y2K? (Eric Fischer/Flickr)

The lights stayed on. The lines stayed open.

And 1999 ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Despite assurances to the contrary from experts, fears that the Y2K bug — a line of computer code that could not recognize dates beyond 1999 — would send us all spiraling back to the dark ages had run rampant for weeks.

The world did indeed change that night. But it was the resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the appointment of his successor, Vladimir Putin — not a computer glitch — that would change history.

But the Y2K bug was real, even if the hype surrounding it was exaggerated, said Ervin Sejdic, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Computer engineers had long been aware of the potential glitch and set about consulting with banks, businesses and government offices in the mid-1990s to fix the codes that threatened to wreak havoc on their systems.

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“Most of the time, it was a software bug that could easily be upgraded,” Sejdic said. “It created a lot of uncertainty for many people. Many people did not understand that no serious government would let a computer glitch destroy its economy.”

Indeed, the U.S. went to great lengths to ensure it did not.

By July 14, 1998, when then-President Bill Clinton delivered a speech on the topic to the National Academy of Sciences, much of the heavy lifting at military installations, government agencies, utilities and financial institutions had been done. Quoting the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Washington Post reported that repair costs totaled about $100 billion between 1995 and 2001.

Disaster, most experts agreed, had been averted months in advance.

Sal Sirabella, who was deputy mayor in charge of public safety for Pittsburgh, said city officials had carefully checked out communications and public safety computers months in advance.

“Mayor (Tom) Murphy didn’t think there was too much to worry about,” Sirabella said.

Sirabella, too, was confident the Y2K bug had been smashed. He said he planned to spend New Year’s Eve the way he always did: at home on the couch watching movies with his family.

Y2K madness

Assurances like that did little to salve public fears the media had fanned in the months and weeks leading up to the New Year.

Apple kicked-off the media blitz at the 1999 Super Bowl with an ad titled HAL 9000. It featured a disembodied computer voice apologizing to “Dave” for how the computers began to “misbehave in 2000.”

“It really wasn’t our fault. It was a bug, Dave,” the voice explained.

A Time magazine cover that same month featured a protester stopping traffic wearing a sandwich board warning “End of the World: Y2K Insanity, Millennium Madness.”

And then were the books.

Michael S. Hyatt, who had already made the New York Times bestseller list with “The Millennium Bug,” made a second stab at the list with “The Y2K Personal Survival Guide: Everything you need to know to get to from this side of the crisis to the other.”

Hyatt’s book and similar tomes that advised stockpiling food and household supplies, collecting items to barter, protecting investments and finding an alternative energy supply undoubtedly contributed to the run on generators, freeze-dried foods and batteries reported in some areas.

By Halloween, “The Simpsons” got into the act with an episode on Y2K that featured Homer triggering a nuclear meltdown when he left his computer on at the power plant on New Year’s Eve.

And finally, on Nov. 21, NBC aired “Y2K,” a doomsday-themed movie of the week.

Heather Starr Fiedler, a Point Park University professor who studies social media, likens the hype surrounding the crisis-that-wasn’t to the kind of hysteria social media can whip up for fake news today.

“I think if there had been social media, it would have been an even bigger crisis,” she said.

Back in Westmoreland County, Joe Niedzalkoski, then communications director for Westmoreland Emergency Management, was among a group of supervisors working a 12-hour shift in the county 911 center “just in case.”

Officials were confident the system would stay up when the clock ticked 12:01 a.m., Niedzalkoski said.

“But everybody had been saying, ‘The computers aren’t going to work. They’re going to shut down,’ ” he recalled.

“After midnight when nothing happened, it got to be a joke. It was like a party then, a celebration. It was the New Year, the New Millennium. The computers kept working. The lights stayed on,” he said, laughing.

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© 2019 Tribune-Review

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.