Small fire - big headache for Bell

It was a small fire - but its effects were felt thousands of kilometres away.

Bell Canada says it has now restored phone service to most of downtown Toronto after an early morning fire in one of its buildings.

But it wasn't just downtown Toronto that suffered - telecommunications services were disrupted as far away as Vancouver.

Toronto fire crews rushed to the scene at about 7:00 a.m. As they pulled up to the grey multi-storey building there was no obvious sign of a fire. But chief Larry Frye says once his men got inside and reached the fourth floor they hit a wall of smoke. "It was extremely dark in the building and the firefighters were feeling their way by touching the walls. "

The source of the smoke was a small room packed with communications equipment. Nearby they found a 54-year-old electrician. He's now in hospital listed in serious condition. Fire officials believe the fire may have been started by a dropped tool sparking an explosion.

In order to fight the blaze more safely the fire department cut power to the building. They also shut down Bell's battery operated backup system. And that sent downtown Toronto's communications network into spasms.

Brokers were having problems reaching the Toronto Stock Exchange. Emergency 911 service was disrupted briefly. Telephones began spitting back busy signals.

Many bank machines and Internet websites went down - some as far away as Alberta.

Trevor Heggie is owner of The Black Tomato restaurant in Ottawa's Byward Market. His problem was credit cards. "We just had to write the info down on a piece of paper and if someone was dishonest we're screwed."

In British Columbia phones calls to Asia were said to be hit and miss.

The fact that a single fire in one small room could cause so much communications chaos is embarrassing for Bell. Bell spokesman Don Horgarth was keen to try to remove any smudges the fire may left on Bell's corporate image. "The system is strong, this was just an unusual thing."