Posted by: distributorcap | August 13, 2008

By the light of the Silvery Moon

A five year anniversary is tomorrow

November 9, 1965

At about 5:30p I was waiting for the Lionel train to deliver my hamburger on its caboose at the Train Restaurant on Union Turnpike in Queens. All of sudden the lights went out and train was stuck on the other side of the counter. It was dark out. My mother said we better go home, so she dragged me into the Bonneville and drove back to the house in Douglaston. No traffic lights, no street lights and a lot of puzzled drivers. At home there were no lights, no TV (20” black & white with rabbit ears) – just a portable transistor radio – WMCA. The phones still worked. She called my father at work (no answer), my grandmother at home (no answer).

It was the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. What was the cause? Maintenance workers at the Niagara Generating Station in Canada set a relay to the wrong level – it would trip the system at a lower than normal capacity. A power surge from upstate New York shut that relay, closing off the Ontario station. This set up a chain reaction throughout the entire power grid. The electricity in Ontario was redirected in a different direction away from the tripped relay. Within minutes as overloads and power losses were cascading throughout power plants in the Northeast – with generators receiving too much power automatically shutting down to protect themselves. The entire grid failed. By 530p Ontario, parts of Quebec, upstate New York, northern New Jersey and most of New England was in total darkness. In New York City, only Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx went dark.

Since it was rush hour, approximately 800,000 subway riders (including my father) were trapped in the NYC underground. Many were stuck in elevators. There were no traffic lights to control traffic. The airports closed. Remarkably there was virtually no violence or looting. Power was restored to most areas within 12 hours. Urban legend holds there was a mini NY baby boom 9 months later. Not really.

The train finally delivered my burger to me at the counter a few days later.

July 13, 1977

At about 8:37p, lightning struck the Buchanan substation in Westchester county, cause circuit breakers to trip. This breaker had not been upgraded and did not re-set itself. Lightning struck again, and with the Buchanan lines out of commission, the other transmission lines from Indian Point power plant (a nuclear plant) become overloaded. The Buchanan station failed.

20 minutes later there was another lightning strike and more lines became overloaded. Con Edison was forced to reduce voltage all over the NYC system. Connections to the Long Island and New Jersey began to overload. By 9:24 it was getting dire. To protect the suburban systems, Con Edison began to shed itself of connections to the outside power grid. The utility could not generate enough power and the lines became overtaxed. At 9:27p the biggest generator in the city – Big Allis, shut down. New York City was plunged into darkness. Power was not restored full until 10:30p the next day.

This was not 1965 New York City. Kennedy and Laguardia were closed, as were the tunnels leading into the city. 500 diners were stuck at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. Thousands were trapped in the subway. The Mets were in the middle of a game with the Cubs. But while all this was going on — looting, arson and vandalism was widespread, especially in areas with large minority populations. 1,600 stores were destroyed, over 1,000 fires were put out and 3,800 people were arrested. 50 cars were stolen from a single Bronx dealership. Pictures of theft, destruction and violence hit the pages of every newspaper in the country.

Welcome to New York City at its low point. The city was broke, the Son of Sam was terrorizing the city and people were fleeing in droves. Mayor Abraham Beame lost to Ed Koch in the primary a few months later.

I was sitting at my uncle’s house in Greenwich Village. Candles were lit, and the food in the refrigerator was all eaten (since it we thought it would go bad). It was a long HOT night.

August 14, 2003

The cause of this blackout was extremely complicated, but human error was a big part. Early in the afternoon of August 14, the First Energy Corp in Ohio was taken off line. At 3:06p several of the company’s transmission lines began to fail due to overgrown trees (yes trees). When the alarm system to warn the utility did not work, First Energy was not aware of the problem and could not warn other utilities. Voltage dips and power starts shifting around the grid. More lines began to fail in Ohio. At 4:06p there is a huge surge on the Ohio lines and Ohio begins drawing power from Michigan. Lines begin tripping all over the grid, causing a huge power deficit. Power surged from the east.

By 4:10p the problem had cascaded into New York, Ontario, Maryland., New Jersey and Connecticut. Plants automatically shut down to prevent damage. 50,000,000 people in the US and Canada were in darkness.

Life and the use of power had grown infinitely more complex since 1977. Water pressure was a problem as was sewage. Amtrak, MetroNorth and other train service came to a grinding halt. Flights were canceled out of many major hubs. Gas stations couldn’t pump gas, refineries shut down. Cell phone service was widely disrupted. Many TV and radio stations went off the air. Most people didn’t watch over the air TV and relied on Cable – which was kaput. There was no internet. Hundreds were trapped in elevators and subways.

I was sitting at my desk, at the entire office went dead. We all came out wondering was going on. TVs were not working and the blare of car horns became increasingly loud. It was 95 degrees outside. After milling around, people began leaving – and began a long trek of walking home. Many people slept in offices, hotel lobbies and in the park.

I only had about a one mile walk to a dark and hot apartment. Second Avenue became one giant block party, as businesses were giving their food away to thousands of residents since all the perishables would spoil.

Coming on the heels of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, immediately there was speculation of terrorism. Without much to do (and the heat and humidity at record levels), the city was more like 1965, with a comraderie not seen in years. Power was restored during the day on August 15.

The 2003 Blackout was the greatest power failure in history. It showed how vulnerable the power grid remained, even after all the safeguards put in place after the 1965 and 1977 incidents. And it also showed how much more reliant the nation was on power. Many systems that protected critical areas of the US – especially at the borders and ports went black with the system. It was a wake up call to the US government that the country needed to spend billions to upgrade an overtaxed and antiquated system. Needless to say that money was squandered by Bush elsewhere.


  1. I remember the 2003 blackout well. I and thousands of others walked the Williamsburg Bridge together.

  2. scary.

  3. “Many systems that protected critical areas of the US – especially at the borders and ports went black with the system. It was a wake up call to the US”It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if they really desired to cripple a country anywhere, it would be to damage the power grid so bad it could not function for two weeks. Everything from gasoline, refrigeration, water etc, would be effected, never mind all the other “essentials” we come to depend on. In a major metropolitan area it could be devastating, but then I have been wrong before.Sometimes, as your post implies, we overlook the obvious.

  4. In 1965 I was doing my homework and after some time outside on the street with my mom and our many neighbors, she made me go back in and finish by candlelight!My dad was not home and he was an auxiliary policeman, so he left work and drove to the police station in our town. He came home much later.In 1977 I have zero recollection of this… I was in the NYC area, but I do not recall my location and/or reaction to this event. Personal blackout, which kind of freaks me out.August 2003 – I am in San Jose, Costa Rica. I turn the tv on in my hotel room and see the news of the blackout and I thought terrorism.At this moment in my life I had gone through a really bad breakup – really, really bad – skin searing off bad. I was in Costa Rica with a group of friends that was imploding and that just made me more miserable. As I was boarding the plane to go to CR, I received a call on my cell phone that one of my closest friends had had a very serious stroke at age 47 and might die.So I was geared for this to be bad and I obsessed about it during that day, sure that “the end” was near, even though I don’t think like that or believe that. It was just a diversion from what seemed like another day in hell for me at that moment.When I got back to NY and heard about it, I was just glad I wasn’t stuck at, near or around my office.Great write up Dcap!

  5. We had a mini blackout here in Fla either last year or the year before. For whatever reason, it didn’t come my way.Just a little something to add here. My ex husband was one of the engineers who built Indian Point. I’ll just leave it at that, by saying he probably wasn’t a good engineer either.

  6. Fine, blame Ohio. It’s not like we did anything as bad as delivering Bush. Aside from the 72-hour trek home and the heat and worrying about everything spoiling, in a way it was kind of cool to realize just how dark night actually is. It was refreshing to have the omnipresent artificial light off for just a bit.

  7. Hi Randal;”in a way it was kind of cool to realize just how dark night actually is”That is a very true. The night is so spectacular without the artificial light and smog to provide a veneer.

  8. In `65, my family lived outside of the blackout zone. My grandmother, who was living in between the GW Bridge and the Cloisters, did not have a battery-powered radio. She called every hour or so for updates on the news.

  9. In 1965, I remember being out on the street with my parents and eating a Carvel.In 1977, I was with cousins on the Redneck Riviera in FloridaIn 2003, I remember being boiling hot without air conditioning and that McManus’s pub served 50c pints, everyone was out in the street and all of the “broken windows policing” rules were abandoned by ORDER OF BLOOMBERG! People were drinking and getting high on the sidewalk. Lots of kids were playing the street games Spartacus wrote about. There was kind of a run on supplies at the groceries and delis. I remember drinking warm Diet Coke and eating pork rinds. Gray’s Papaya uses a gas stove so they had lines around 8th street. I met up with a friend and we waited about an hour and a half but came away with a dozen dogs and some OJ that was still pretty cold.

  10. A storm knocked the grid out for a week here last month. No ATM’s=no cash. Wish I wasn’t so dependent on the grid.Thanks for this excellent post.

  11. That satellite photo of the dark spot is eerie! I don’t have many power outage stories, except for when I was growing up in my small mountain town, the power lines would snap under heavy snow quite often. We had fireplaces and a gas stove, so it wasn’t any big deal.I am proud to say not a single terrorist made it through Idaho Springs, Colorado during our many outages!

  12. We lost power last week because of a storm. After about twenty minutes, we closed up the office and went home.Paralyzed.I can’t even imagine on a large scale what a mess that would be.

  13. I hate to break it to you but now deli trains deliver sushi.

  14. I remember that day in 2003. It’s was 95 degrees with 100% humidity and the motherfuckingratbastardfuckingwhoreowners of the business I work for don’t believe in summer casual. I had to walk five miles to get home.I billed the motherfuckingratbastardfuckingwhoreowners of the business I work $900 for a new suit. They gave the number of a tailor, instead.

  15. Our power went out the day before about 3:00 in the morning. I know this because my freakin’ son woke me up to tell me. Was that necessary? Really? It’s funny because I just bought myself one of those wind up flashlights that don’t use batteries, in case of an emergency. My husband just laughed at me, but we’ll see who’s laughing if we have one of those big black outs you just wrote about. I’ll stay in my own little room with the light on and make him search in the dark for the batteries we don’t have for the other flash lights in the house. I love revenge. 😉

  16. Money squandered by Bush???? No way. What a “surprise”…

  17. Hey Mary Ellen’s back??? Didn’t you go away for awhile?

  18. One time when I was younger the lights went out and my mom forgot to get batteries for the flashlight. She then realized that she did get them. After a few minutes we had some light. Could you imagine that? Wow!

  19. OK. I left you a donut…. and something else. check it out.

  20. I was a baby during the ’65 blackout My mom told me that we were fished out of an elevator along with my brother Gus. I remember 1977 well because I witness the looting and mayhem firsthand from the window of our apartment on 6th Street and Avenue D. They were shooting at the firemen that night. I agree that 2003 was a lovefest. I ended up sleeping on the couch in some exec’s office because I had no way to get home and I was part of my company’s business contingency planning team. Great post. Lots of fascinating detail.

  21. great post…really scary and so good that it your tracked the whole situation…good thing Bush worked hard to fix the grid…oh wait…that was in a dream I had…yeah..sorry…

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