August 14th, 2008
02:37 PM ET

Blackout: Where were you?

On fifth anniversary of blackout, the nation is still vulnerable. CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports
On fifth anniversary of blackout, the nation is still vulnerable. CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports

David M. Reisner
AC360° Digital Producer

Five years ago today, at this very moment – we were in the dark.

I had only been with CNN for a short time, and had been working the 6a-2p shift. It was a busy morning and I had just made the commute back home to Brooklyn.

I threw my bag on the floor, flipped on the AC – and was probably asleep before I hit the pillow. Then I got call from my mom, frantic. She was in Atlantic City... and asked if I had seen the news.

Sleepy-eyed, I reached for the remote... no power. The AC was off too. As I got up to open a window I thought 'great, a brown-out hit Williamsburg.'

What I saw next shook all the sleep out of my eyes;
billowing smoke pluming out of the 14th street electrical substation, across the river. The smoke was perfectly lined up with the Empire State building and for a moment I thought the worst had happened, again. (Turns out it is a normal event for the machine to belch out black smoke as it automatically shuts down, but that was enough to get me running out the door back to work)

I picked up my bag, hopped down the stairs, and began the eight-mile walk to work. Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, everything became surreal. It seemed like I was the only person going INTO the city. Like a salmon swimming upstream I worked my way around businessmen, tourists, families, children...

By the time I made it back to the CNN NY Bureau, walking the entire width of the island, it hit me. We were on the 22nd floor. Quite the walk up...

I immediately jumped into work mode, helping to gather whatever information we could on the situation with reporters and producers in the bureau. With daylight retreating, evening set in across the city... and as the sun began to set, we braced for the worst.

Blackouts in NY have not brought out the best in people.

In the New York City blackout of '68 the city saw crime, looting and destruction. During one robbery in Brooklyn, a police sergeant responding to a store alarm was shot by the burglar. He died a few days later. A decorated war veteran turned cop... killed by a burglar... changing my Aunt Gerri's entire life forever... a widow to this day.

Fortunately NY remained calm this time. That night proved to be one of the most surreal of my life. I spent it driving around with our photographers. Most people treated the blackout as a novelty in NY; Gawking at streetlights and snarling traffic, calling family members on their cell phones – draining what ever power they had.

I remember seeing people sleeping on the floors of Grand Central, on the steps of Farley Post Office, across the street from Penn Station. Cabbies were charging $400 a trip – and picking up as many people as they could, in between fighting with customers over the fare. Bars were selling beers for $1 and food was 1/2 off... Everyone trying to make a quick buck before the refrigerated food, and a city's patience, spoiled.

But the most amazing moment of the whole experience involved a visit to Times Square, normally one of the brightest and noisiest spots in all of New York City... dark and silent.

The street signs, billboards, floodlights, neon-signs, and traffic... were all dark.

It was one of the few times in the history of the city where you could stand in the middle of Time Square, look up, and see every star in the sky.

The only light came from the moon, directly overhead, blanketing everything in a pale white glow.

The rest of the night remains a blur, we were able to work at the NY1 News station, using their signal (and backup generator) to share the story with the rest of the world not affected.

I remember falling asleep under a vending machine in their break room at around 2am, ready to see what daylight would bring.

What about you? Where were you when the blackout hit 5 years ago today?

Filed under: 360° Radar • David M. Reisner • T1
soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Stacie

    I was at my office on 55th/7th. Like most other people, we were all concerned about another terrorist attack, and we left the building (walking down 24 flights of stairs!) pretty quickly. My colleague and I stopped at a bar next door because they were giving away their beer, but that turned out to be a mistake – it made me tired, and I didn't realize it would take me nearly 5 hours to get back home to Astoria that day. We tried a crosstown bus, which covered two blocks in an hour and a half, and after that we started walking, all the way over the Queensboro Bridge, for the second time since 9/11. Queensboro Plaza was a nightmare, jam-packed with people trying to get buses and cabs; I saw one bus driver kick a pregnant woman off the bus because he was only going to Jamaica and she wasn't. I was wearing sandals and my feet were bleeding by that point, so I walked around a corner and wound up thumbing a ride. Two young guys picked me up, and though I was apprehensive I was also exhausted, so I got in their car and they kindly drove me home. I've since moved away from NYC, but I'll never forget the chaos of that day – and the fact that it made for a pretty exciting adventure.

    August 15, 2008 at 8:58 am |
  2. Ellen

    I was living on Tinker Street in Woodstock NY. My neighbors downstairs told me as I drove up that we had no power. I thought it was a local thing and lit candles as it got dark. The whole town was walking around that evening with candles. My neighbors got out their sleeping bags and slept on the lawn. I had just moved up from Georgia (again) and was not bothered by the heat at all, put a candle in the bathroom sink and went to bed.
    In the morning I listened to the car radio and I recall that the news said it was Canada's fault, "Blame Canada" that catchy tune in one of the Southpark episodes ran around in my head.
    I think it was a relief in some way not to "have" to do anything. Perhaps October should have no plug days..

    August 15, 2008 at 6:28 am |
  3. Richard Conn Henry

    As a grad student at Princeton, I turned to WOR on my VW's radio ... and ... no WOR. Gosh, I thought, NYC has been nuked. Let me try WNBC. No WNBC. Then I got to the restaurant and forgot about it.

    August 15, 2008 at 5:36 am |
  4. Emily

    I was in Paris, France, about a month into my term abroad for my language major. It was the hottest summer on record, with over 15,000 estimated heat-related deaths by the end of the month. The outage in the States reached me via friends, thanks to a blog service we all use. Everyone seemed safe, and many posted photos afterward. I felt very disconnected from something that affected so many people – the horrific heat in France was much more personal and real to me (understandably). It was fascinating, though, to experience the blackout from my friends' perspectives – there were many philosophical blog posts made in the days following the blackout. I had one photo (long lost to computer crashes in the meantime) that stuck in my mind – moonrise over the city, vivid colors played out, and absolutely no lights on whatsoever.

    August 15, 2008 at 4:51 am |
  5. Tony Richards

    I was actually in an elevator when the power went out but it had just started it's descent. I had a multi tool in my bag and was able to pop the doors open using the screwdriver. I was in midtown so I walked to my apt. on 15th & 7th and grabbed my camera, heading for Union Square. I slowly made my way from there up to Times Square, taking photos all along the way. As it got dark I switched to the night shot control and boy did I get some cool shots. Seeing NYC in complete darkness is something that (hopefully) only happens once to a person and I was determined to get as much as I could. When I got to Times Square, the newsrooms were obviously still running on emergency power but all else was out. People who couldn't get back into their hotels were sleeping right on the ground. A few generator-powered work lights were all the light there really was and it was like a scene from a disaster movie (isn't it funny how real life, in it's most intense moments seems more like a movie). I wish I could post the photos here – they were some of the best shots I ever took.

    August 15, 2008 at 4:32 am |
  6. MG1977

    It was a black out, who cares? Cities experience them all the time, but NYC has one and it's suddenly news? What about the blackout that struck the entire eastern seaboard because of one single substation outage, is that not news? Back in the sixties, tensions were high because of JFK, MLK, and the general civil rights movement. Five years ago was nothing, so why devote an entire 'disaster-tinged' article to it? Black outs happen. Get over it.

    August 15, 2008 at 4:20 am |
  7. Josh

    I had just stepped off the subway in Upper Manhattan, where I was showing an apartment to a circus acrobat. As the doors closed behind us, all the lights went out. Upon exiting the station, we realized the outage wasn't limited to the subway station, noting that the traffic lights were out... and the apartment building's lights were out... and people had their radios on.

    At first, of course, there were hysterical reports of terrorist attacks: "They've knocked out power to all of North America! And the bombings start at sundown!" one man screamed from his car. Then he cut to the chase: "Twenty bucks and I'll give you a ride out of the city while there's still time!"

    I walked 100 blocks to my office in Midtown to get my sneakers, which were of course stored in my bag under my desk. And I wasn't allowed up into the tower to get them. In the uncomfortable shoes I was wearing, walking the ten miles to Brooklyn was out of the question, so I walked to a friend's house on the Upper West Side – pausing to talk one of the $400 cabbies mentioned in the main post into giving a free ride to a heatstroke-stricken elderly woman I encountered.

    Arriving at my friend's home, I realized that it was a long, long way up. But I made it, and it was a good thing I did – she had had knee surgery and needed someone to walk her eager puppy. After resting up from all the walking, I joined in the gigantic open street fair that descended on the Upper West Side... and had one of the most special nights of my life.

    August 15, 2008 at 3:59 am |
  8. Julie San Diego, CA

    My memories of the blackout: having instant respect for Paula Zahn who was reporting sans makeup and with damp hair.

    Honestly, you New Yorkers take yourselves so seriously. The electricity goes out for a few days and it's like, a big deal. 🙂

    I grew up on the northern plains where a blizzard could take the electricity out for a week or more. You have to be prepared – alternate source of heat, food in the pantry, fill the bathtub with water because you might lose water pressure. Being prepared can be a matter of survival because the temperature can dip to 40 below zero.

    It does make you self-reliant.

    August 15, 2008 at 3:28 am |
  9. Steven

    I was an actor that summer. Working for a small theatre company down in Chelsea. Our dress rehearsal was scheduled for the evening of August 14th but, with no electricity to provide lights and sound (let alone air conditioning), the director was left with no other choice but to cancel it. So, a friend of mine and I took to the streets. I was housesitting up on 73rd and 1st and he lived about twenty blocks further north. We talked about the work, how our show was coming along, as well as in what direction we could see ourselves going in our profession. We walked toward Times Square. I remember the sun setting between the skyscrapers, the moon rising and noticing the Big Dipper emerge as the city slowly gave itself up to the night. In Times Square, the last few audience members were still trickling out of Elton John's 'Aida.' The only lights I can remember being lit was up a sidestreet – a small purple, green and white sign hung above a door with the wiches face from Wicked. Someone had a battery powered radio that he had set atop the roof of his car – blaring – and we joined a crowd of 15 or 20 people gathered around it to try to gather information. One guy on the radio suggested the blackout was caused by Howard Sterns gigantic balls. Laughter spilled all over. My friend and I, sweat matting our hair and dripping down our faces, wishing we had something to cold to drink, sat on the steps of Carnegie Hall smoking cigarettes not saying a word to each other. Watching the people pass us – the atmosphere of the whole place charged by the nights heightened excitement. As we continued our walk north, a cop car rounded a street corner saying over the loud speaker, "Drink your beer before it gets warm." Back in my neighborhood, I walked behind two girls who were dressed only in their panties and bras. Small convenient stores weren't letting people inside – taking orders through the doorway. And, most remarkably, in front of the Carlyle Hotel, was a group of people relaxing in lawn chairs with candles and drinks sharing their stories with each other – waiting for the lights to come back on. It was a hot night – about 90 degrees and very humid. Without air conditioning, getting a decent nights sleep was nearly impossible. But who could have possibly wanted to sleep on a night like this?

    August 15, 2008 at 2:53 am |
  10. Chadlee from CANADA

    I have to admit, just about everyone of these stories are "touching", to say the least. I live in a small town of about 15,000 and to hear how millions had come together for this event is inspiring. We take for granted our moon and stars here, our "country folk" settings, ( all for one and all for all). Again, it's very inspireing to hear about such friendships. Unfortunately it hurts me to read all of these stories and come across an individual that lays the entire blame on Canada? Before writing this I had already bookmarked this story for both of my daughters to read. I'm now questioning myself when this individual lays the sole blame on Canada.... "sole blame on Canada?" As a family we've raised a "United We Stand" flag in our front yard since that aweful day of 9/11, and I've explained why so very many times to both of my little girls. We're from a small island off of the east coast of Canada, Cape Breton Island, and I still feel "United We Stand". I guess I'm just trying to say that one individual is now making me explain there are certain people that just don't get "United We Stand", it kind of hurt, but my girls know and will know "United We Stand" no matter what. LOVE most of the stories about that particular night.

    August 15, 2008 at 2:30 am |
  11. Michael, Toronto, CANADA

    I was at work when the blackout hit. I worked at the head office of a financial institution so our building was one of a handful with backup generators. Because we still had power, we all had to stay at work to make sure the systems were not affected. It took me almost 2 hours to get home, which usually takes 30 minutes. We spent the night outside chatting with neighbors enjoying the rest of the cold beers. One of my best nights.
    The next morning, we lived in the small patch of the city where the power was still not restored. The novelty of enjoying time off the grid quickly dissipated the next morning, as I wanted my power back.

    August 15, 2008 at 2:25 am |
  12. Ryan

    I was on a plane into New York City for a 5 day weekend and I was stuck on the 38th floor of my hotel with no air conditioning for the whole time. It was an amazing experience though to see the sky at night and to see all of New York come together without the looting and riots that may have occurred in a lesser city...

    August 15, 2008 at 2:11 am |
  13. Haykaz

    I was in the middle of times square on the second floor of a double decker tour bus. We didn't notice the lights were out because it was around 4 or 5 and it was still bright out. But then the bus stopped, and the traffic and people started becoming more and more dense. I started filming the scene to show my family when I came back to the Bay Area. My hotel was on 51st and Lexington so I didn't have that bad of a walk. Most people were enjoying the moment, because it was the only time that no one in New York was able to work or hurry somewhere like they always do. The next day we came back to times square to see the media frenzy. A reporter from NY1 interviewed my brother and me (but only showed my brother on air). Then we turned around and saw Anderson Cooper himself!!! He wasn't as famous then but I knew his face because I always watch CNN. I wanted to get an autograph but he was going over some lines by himself and I thought it would be rude to ask for an autograph while he was working. I also saw Wolf Blitzer interviewing the fire chief. Overall, it was a very memorable experience.

    August 15, 2008 at 2:11 am |
  14. Bryan

    it seems odd that most of the comments made are about how amazing the blackout experience was for them. (well a majority). in 68' it was savage. 03' showed a very different side of humans. does this mean that as a society we have started to apperciate our living conditions? everyone was either scared for someone or relaxing and having a good time.

    maybe it just goes to show, that when people take the time to enjoy the life they are content with, that they will make the best out of a situation.

    or maybe it just says that democracy (when given enough time) works.

    August 15, 2008 at 1:49 am |
  15. J.

    We were up on the 18th floor near madison square park (25th st). After the lights, and most cell towers, went out I made my way down to the park for an hour or two before beginning what was a very surreal trek north. I had a date, on 110th st, and should she actually show I wasn't going to be the chump who stood her up in the blackout. I saw the city in a different way on that walk - people on their porches with radios, the mayor promising calm (and power), Times Square lit by cabbies' headlights, and commuters camped out around GC. But perhaps the most interesting aspect was that - like me - everyone had become a tourist, marveling at the spectacle that was NYC in the dark. Mars rose over Brooklyn that night, but in manhattan there was no riots or looting. Merely a new New York was discovered.

    August 15, 2008 at 1:41 am |
  16. Janna

    Natalie, I would've kissed that knight in a shining pick up truck! You must have been pretty scared. I'm very touched by the generosity of strangers in times of crisis. Thanks for sharing your story!

    August 14, 2008 at 11:42 pm |
  17. Kathy

    I was conducting a software class and had just instructed everyone to "click here"; in unison they hit their key and the power went out. The timing was so strange. We then sat around for a while, figuring it was a building glitch until finally someone in one of the other cubes got news of what was going on. Like true New York troopers, everyone headed down the stairs. As I was in from out-of-town I made sure I gathered up my laptop, put the heels in my bag and donned my sneakers before I too left the building. Good thing it wasn't a life-or-death emergency, although that thought had crossed all of our minds. I made it down the 29 flights of stairs from the office, walked the few blocks to my hotel. Luckily I didn't have to climb the 32 floors to my hotel room, as they had an emergency generator. I spent the quietest night in New York; something I didn't think existed as it is usually so noisy with all the horns honking.

    August 14, 2008 at 11:32 pm |
  18. Adam Zielinski

    I was visiting NYC with my family. We spent the morning shopping in SoHo and were just about to catch a train back up to midtown where we were staying when we noticed everybody looking at their cell phones with completely perplexed looks on their faces. Floods of people exiting buildings, subway stations, all with the same bewildered look. We asked one street vendor if he knew what all the commotion was over and he said power was out in all five boroughs. We decided to make the long trek up to Time Square where the Marriott was to wait out what we thought would be a temporary outage. After walking through streets crowded with businessmen and women, tourists and gridlocked traffic (some of which was attempting to be directed by everyday citizens) we arrived at the hotel only to find out that nobody was allowed in. Thus began one of the most memorable nights of my life where I could say afterwards I slept in the middle of the street in Times Square.

    August 14, 2008 at 11:23 pm |
  19. Jason

    My friend Mark and I were in New York City on vacation. We arrived the night before the blackout hit. We were doing a few touristy things here and there and decided to hit the Natural History Museum. We were looking at the Native American displays when the entire museum went pitch black. Let me tell you, it's a little frightening looking at a bunch of mannequins wielding tomahawks and then being plunged into complete blackness! After about four minutes (but what seemed like 4 hours) the generator lights came on and we were able to find our way out. What struck me about the people of New York was how calm they all were. People were lighting candles and singing on their stoops. I even saw one bar owner after nightfall, park his car on the curb, flood his bar with the headlights, crank up the radio and start giving away his bottled beer for free before it went bad! Finally we walked to the East River and looked at the darkened skyline realizing, we may never see New York quite like this again in our lifetime! All in all, a trip to remember.

    August 14, 2008 at 11:16 pm |
  20. William Courtland, Earth

    Light stayed on at the house and work came back on when it was time for my night shift. The work hours were extended for courtesy so I was leaving after the power predicably failed the next day. Driving home was interesting, a tail gater on the highway, he took my exit and followed to close, ran a yellow at the highway exit after I followed through, and ran the next light red after passing me, when he passed I noticed that he had no plate, and his validation sticker was a few numbers shy... power outage; no plate, brand new two-thousand + monte carlo SS, kid driving, few passengers, no seat belts, passed aggressively as I waited for the light... and I caught up- 1983-533i? my cell phone useless after leaving the service areas only found around the rural road divided design speed ~140~, now on a rural road undivided ~110~ with blind corners due to trees.

    The guy took five cars on one of the blind corners; what an endangerment, I caught up... but only to warn them to put on their seat belts on their joy ride in their stolen car, and manged it convieniently at at my turn off, I told a cop when I got to the house, "Hwy 24 dangerous highspeedster... stolen car..." and he walked away without a call to a dispatch.

    August 14, 2008 at 11:15 pm |
  21. susan

    My daughter and I were taking Amtrak from Maine into NYC when the train stopped on the tracks in Connecticut as the conductor had heard there was no power ahead. He asked all the passengers to call anyone they could to find out more information. He decided to coast as far as he could and made it into the station where we spent the night in one of the offices (no hotel rooms left). People were so gracious – strangers who had seen us on the news drove to the station and offered a place to stay. Employees of the station brought us breakfast the next morning before a bus took us into NYC/Penn Station. We wet our faces before walking up the steps of Penn and a CNN reporter approached us (I assume he thought we had spent the night downstairs in the station. It was certainly a grand adventure. I was amazed at how fast the "I survived the blackout" t-shirts appeared on the streets!

    August 14, 2008 at 11:06 pm |
  22. Brian K

    I was a work in Greenfield Village, presenting in Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory when we noticed that the low voltage lights had all gone out a few minutes before closing. Someone who had been listening to a radio told us that a terrorist attack was feared – everyone East of us had lost power. Once the reality of the situation was made clear by the media, a lot of people were relieved.

    I took advantage of the dark night by taking my first deep sky photo of the North American Nebula – straight over head. I needed only a few minutes to record it – something that was impossible under normal city light conditions.... I can usually only expose for 120 seconds before the image is totally white with ambient light.

    I am surprised that the media hasn't taken up the gauntlet and questioned all municipalities about their daily waste of all that electricity. Why do we allow light to go above the horizon? It lights the sky, not the ground, where it is needed. If all outdoor lighting were designed to light the ground only with reflectors or proper shields, we could use lower wattage light bulbs, thus saving electricity and natural resources. This is something the US Government could regulate, just as the EPA regulates fuel emissions.

    How about it Anderson? Maybe you could take the lead in helping us save 30-40% of America's public lighting bill!

    August 14, 2008 at 11:03 pm |
  23. Dianne

    I was in Western Canada watching coverage on TV. All the media 'talking heads' were blaming Canada!

    Turned out to be a problem in the USA!

    Some things never change, same as 9/11 'talking heads' blamed that on Canada, too, at first until they found out all the 'terrorist' came from 'inside' the USA.

    August 14, 2008 at 11:03 pm |
  24. John R.

    My wife and I were in Cedar Point, Ohio at the amusement park. She had just come from the lavatory and all of a sudden all I could hear was people talking. There was no other sound throughout the park. I turned her way and told her to "listen"!! The sound of people talikng was deafening. I looked up at the coaster and the cars were stuck right at the top. It was really scary!!! I told her the only way they would have gotten me down from there was either on a stretcher or with an arm full of vallium.

    Ever been in a amusement park with no sound???

    August 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm |
  25. Karen M

    I was sitting in my cubicle at work and my computer went dead and the lights went out. I called up to the floor above me, thinking it might be just our floor. Everything was dead. Rumors flew about many things, but in short time we were told it was a power problem, and we should leave and go home. Workers filed out of our building, meeting on the street, and everyone started grouping together. I live in Queens, so I sought out people I knew that lived there too. We decided to band together. I ran to to deli a block away, and bought bottles of water. Our pack started walking North, toward the 59th street bridge, keeping an eye on one another during the chaos. We walked across the bridge into Queens, up Northern Boulevard, saying goodbye to people of the pack as they left the group toward their home. It was still light out, so everyone was in good spirits. But it was hot. Finally, we all made it home. By the time I got to my apartment, it was dark, and I had to feel my way up the stairwell to reach my floor. Not knowing how long the blackout would last, my husband and I ventured back out to buy supplies in the dark. Neighbors who were at the bottom of the stairs had flashlights and helped out. We went to a local deli, and bought bread and other things to get us through. No price price gouging. Everyone was calm. The whole experience was made easier because of 9/11. People just acted. At the beginning, the whole thing seemed like an exercise. But by the end, 2 days later (Queens was the last to get power back), I had a new appreciation for ice. And batteries. Our radio faded out before the power came back. And I keep a pair of comfortable shoes at work now. I was lucky on 9/11 and during the blackout to have comfortable shoes on. During the blackout, my best friend lived on the Upper East Side, and spent the night at her local bar with friends, keeping guard on the place. They camped out like they were at a tailgate party. Quite an experience for all.

    August 14, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
  26. Melody

    I was at work at 33rd and 7th. We all hung around the office for a while not sure what to do. Eventually I left, walked around manhattan for about an hour or two thinking to hook up with some friends, then realized I better just head for home. I walked down to the brooklyn bridge with two small bottles of water. Walking across the brooklyn bridge was surreal. By the time I had gotten to Flatbush, my water was gone, but was able to buy one more bottle before reaching Prospect park, where I sat down on a park bench to rest a bit. I was about 60 pounds overweight and feeling pretty tired. At the park, everything felt so peaceful until I realized that the sun was just getting ready to set and I would be walking through every imaginable neighborhood before getting home to Sheepshead bay. I started walking like a demon on fire. I knew that if I stopped, I'd never make it home because my body was hitting it's limits. The moon over sheepshead bay was unbelievable. I made it up the 5 flights of stairs in my pitch black apartment building, almost fainted from dehydration on my doorstep and was never so happy to be in my apartment after figuring out the keys and locks in the pitch blackness. I took a fully clothed cold shower. It was one of the most empowering days of my life. I walked 22 miles in 6 hours with 60 extra pounds. After that, I figured I could do just about anything.

    August 14, 2008 at 10:48 pm |
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