Police are hunting for vandals who chopped fiber-optic cables and killed landlines, cell phones and Internet service for tens of thousands of people in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties on Thursday.
The sabotage essentially froze operations in parts of the three counties at hospitals, stores, banks and police and fire departments that rely on 911 calls, computerized medical records, ATMs and credit and debit cards.
The full extent of the havoc might not be known for days, emergency officials said as they finished repairing the damage late Thursday.
Whatever the final toll, one thing is certain: Whoever did this is in a world of trouble if he, she or they get caught.
"I pity the individuals who have done this," said San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis.
Ten fiber-optic cables carrying were cut at four locations in the predawn darkness.
Residential and business customers quickly found that telephone service was perhaps more laced into their everyday needs than they thought. Suddenly they couldn't draw out money, send text messages, check e-mail or Web sites, call anyone for help, or even check on friends or relatives down the road.
Several people had to be driven to hospitals because they were unable to summon ambulances. Many businesses lapsed into idleness for hours, without the ability to contact associates or customers.
More than 50,000 landline customers lost service - some were residential, others were business lines that needed the connections for ATMs, Internet and bank card transactions. One line alone could affect hundreds of users.
"It was substantial," said John Britton, spokesman for AT&T.
Authorities throughout the area said Thursday night that nobody had sought help from fire or police officials. But only the coming hours, and maybe days, will tell if there were emergencies nobody knows about yet. Officials worried that some people might have become incapacitated before they were able to summon help without a phone.
"We don't know what this has done to people's lives," said Liz Kniss, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. "I'm incredibly troubled by it.
"We haven't experienced a major catastrophic emergency today. But we don't know."
FBI agents, phone company managers and local police said they were scouring the vandalism sites for evidence and aggressively searching for the perpetrators. Potential penalties include criminal charges of vandalism, heavy restitution payments and possibly even worse consequences if someone winds up being hurt directly by the outage.