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Manhattan From a Brooklyn Rooftop

When the Lights Went Out

At 4:15 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2003, tens of millions of people across the Northeast and Midwest U.S. and Ontario were suddenly without power. Our staff and readers tell us what happened next.

Every so often, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This time we asked: Where were you when the lights went out on Aug. 14, 2003?
 

Leitha Matz

I’d just completed a line cook’s marathon: 27 hours working on two hours of sleep. The sous chef saluted. “She’s done three straight shifts. Let’s clap her out, folks.” Hearty applause faded as the lights darkened, flickered, then went out entirely. Cooks spontaneously emitted an “Oooo!” like deep-voiced school kids. Around my waist, I felt a hand. “Let’s go back to the walk-in and do it. It’ll be [expletive deleted] awesome. Seriously.” As I shrugged him off, it became clear that something was wrong. Seriously. Hand to hand we hauled bucket over bucket of ice to hold the expensive stuff: foie gras, whole fish, goat and pig carcasses. I jittered, stashing Gatorade in my pack for the two-hour hike to Brooklyn, a delirious post-apocalyptic pilgrimage alongside the rest of the city’s bewildered workforce. Suits, skirts, barefoot, carrying heels, we pulsed into the Williamsburg Bridge roadway, greeting exhausted strangers with dizzy familiarity.
 

Josh Fischel

I was just finishing up my seventh year of working at a boys’ summer camp in New Hampshire. It was my second season of living in a platform tent with three of the oldest campers, right on the lake. We got word from concerned parents in the New York area, wondering if we’d been affected by the blackout, which seemed laughable, as each of the cabins at camp had a single light bulb and one electrical outlet, and now we had more power than much of the eastern seaboard. If only the kids had just gotten home from camp when the blackout had occurred, I remember thinking—they’ll think it’s something like being in the woods by a lake in New Hampshire all over again.
 

Andrew Womack

In Lower Manhattan, my computer screen fizzled and the air conditioner cut off. While walking back to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge I heard the following rumors: 1) The power’s out in the entire country; 2) The power’s out in the entire country and all of Canada; 3) There was an explosion and somebody’s definitely behind this but I don’t know who. (The last one was from a cop.)
 

Liz Entman

I was at my job at a boutique financial marketing firm on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (This was less glamorous than it sounds—our office was a converted apartment with four employees, and my job was copyediting junk mail.) Within about 15 minutes of the power failure, we had established, by cell phone, that the blackout had overtaken the entire city, that it was not an act of terror, and that it was going to take a long time to fix. My boss told us to go home, and as I gathered my things, I realized two things: I had no cash, and I had no toilet paper at home. With no way to access an ATM and no way to use plastic at any store that might still be open, I helped myself to $20 from the lockbox and a roll of Charmin from the office bathroom. (To my knowledge, this was the only act of looting in the neighborhood.)

By the time I made it up to my eighth-floor apartment an hour later, I could not have cared less about the lack of hot water in the shower. I ate a supper of cold leftovers from the fridge, read by flashlight until the batteries died, listened to a hand-held radio until those batteries died, and tried to call friends and family until my cell also died. Then, since it was too hot to sleep, I sat on the front stoop and gossiped with my neighbors until the wee hours. The darkness of the city was bizarre; it was the first and last time I saw stars in Manhattan. That night I slept badly and woke early, and in the morning, the sun was up and the lights were back on.
 

Danielle Lafond

Surrounded by medieval revelry in Slippery Rock, Pa., I had not heard about the blackout. The S.C.A., or Society for Creative Anachronisms, hosts the Pennsic War annually and frowns upon such modern implements as cell phones. It wasn’t until that night, when I made an emergency supply trip to the Big Y up the street (sans historically accurate garb and rapier, of course) that I spoke with my dad. “It really is bad,” he remarked. “Tons of people in the dark without running water or plumbing!”

“I can only imagine what that’s like,” I grumbled, balancing a five-gallon bottle of water on my hip while hefting a bundle of firewood into the car. Still, I had chosen my lot. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad for everyone if they all had a frosty mug of grog waiting for them in their darkened home, as I did.
 

Patrick Ambrose

Lights flickered, the server room darkened. Silence filled the office like that deceptive stillness before the onset of a storm. Maddening beeping sounds erupted from every workstation as the power-supply batteries kicked in. Our network went on life support. Phones rang. I doubled up on Xanax. The office closed. I joined the throng across the Brooklyn Bridge on my way home. My neighbor and I pooled ice and beer, then went up on the roof to ponder the BQE traffic jam while we listened to a hand-crank radio—a Y2K gift from my parents. Darkness settled in. I lacked candles, food, and the navigational skills to find them. I emptied liquor bottles into a rocks glass and added a lemon twist—the classic Yellow God Almighty—a concoction that enabled me to sleep through the 90-degree heat without air conditioning.
 

Lauren Frey Daisley

It was crazy nasty N.Y.C.-brand hot, but I was doing my best to honor the city’s request to keep my air conditioner off. As it was, my fridge was faltering. I did, however, have my computer on because I was putting together an application packet to send to a local radio station that had invited me to apply to be their new morning show host. As my machine was burning my demo CD, I lost my resolve and turned on the air conditioner. Just as all my electronics sputtered and died, my computer shot out the disc. It was, I now see, merciful timing.

My neighbor and I walked to a mailbox together to drop off my application and carried on to Radio Shack where we picked up extra batteries and a phone that didn’t require electricity just in time for the store clerk to lock the door behind us. It had been getting too crowded for the staff’s comfort. Again, thank you, Timing.

That night bit. It was totally, uncomfortably, sticky hot (whatever, bourgeois complaint), and I only partially believed the authorities who all said terrorists weren’t behind the outage. My conspiracy theory brain feared bad guys were immobilizing us prior to an attack. Which is why—in addition to wondering whether events were still happening anywhere anymore anyway—I decided not to attend a concert in Central Park that night. I acknowledge that this is lame, but it took a few years for my nervous system to go back to normal after having to hitchhike out of Manhattan in 2001.
 

Frank Smith

I was in the third-floor restroom at work. I groaned. What luck. I crept along darkened corridors to the same desk where I made phone calls to my family on Sept. 11 before the lines went dead. It was a blackout, some said. An attack, another claimed. The ConEd building blew up, said one. That spooked me, as my girlfriend worked in the ConEd building. I couldn’t reach her and decided to walk the two miles between Hudson Street and Union Square to find her. The day was so humid, and the sidewalks so crowded—I was drenched in sweat and near frantic for information. And there she was—drawn for no defined reason to the same landmark. It was our ancient electric grid, not terrorism as my coworkers had claimed. I quit that job not long afterwards.
 

Angelo Young

The heat pushed everyone outdoors. Gabe, my native friend, was buying bags of ice. He said he was here for the ‘77 blackout. I asked if he thought it would last very long. “It could be hours, it could be days,” he told me. “If I were you I’d buy ice.” The last time I had seen so many bonds forming among strangers on the streets of Manhattan was on Sept. 11. By that evening, the pub-goers were crowding the sidewalks. I saw more than one Good Samaritan helping the cops direct traffic. They were giving away the melting ice cream at the bodega. A couple of aspiring models joined Gabe and I and three Irish contractors in a jam session on an E. 26th St. stoop. The street was alive well into the next morning, more happy than upset at the misfortune.

Besides, it was too hot to go inside.
 

Nozlee Samadzadeh

I was 15 years old and two days into my sophomore year of high school. Everyone either had a car or knew someone with one—they’d speed off campus together to lunch at local chain restaurants, returning for fourth period with takeout boxes and drinks in Styrofoam cups. Unable to drive and parentally banned from driving with kids my age, I ate alone in the cafeteria.

Over dinner that night I learned about the blackout in New York City. To a lonely high school kid in central Oklahoma, New York City wasn’t a place but rather an idea, a setting for exciting novels and movies, unattainable for mortals. Curious, I tried to walk from the kitchen to my bedroom without turning on the lights. I bumped into my dad and decided I’d had enough. High school is hard enough without a lack of power.
 

Daniel Tibbitt

I was a student at Columbia Law School, doing a summer internship in a big downtown building off the South Ferry subway stop, as far south as you can get on Manhattan. We walked down 20-some flights of stairs in a quiet, unshared but collective panic that the other shoe was dropping somewhere outside that stairwell. Emerging into a street full of other office workers, everyone stared up, looking around for something. Eventually it seemed clear that it was just a blackout—or if it was something more sinister, it was invisibly sinister and thus who knew what to do? I walked home to 115th Street, stopping at a few bodegas along the way for beers that they’d taken out of their coolers and put on ice. There was no need to hide them in paper bags. The walk took hours, and I had on dress shoes. When I got home there was a party going on around the stoop, and in the middle of the night we ended up going over to Riverside Park, sitting on a bench on the Hudson and looking up at the stars. They were panoramic and beautiful, like being on top of a remote mountain in the middle of New York City. I don’t live there anymore, and it’s one of my favorite New York memories.
 

Bridget Fitzgerald

It could have been much worse. As it was, I was on a fancy hotel beach in Montauk when the blackout struck, and we didn’t know the difference until surrounding beachgoers started getting phone calls, hearing the news by proxy (this was back in the pre-iPhone days, when there wasn’t an app for that). My friend and I (and said friend’s mother) had traveled out there to piggyback on the fancy private beach—we had friends staying there, but we ourselves were mere interlopers. I had a towel and a swimsuit and not much else to my name, and we didn’t have enough gas in the car to get back on the highway. So we resigned ourselves to a night of camping out in very-wealthy Long Island, and Montauk had been charmed with half-functioning electricity: One side of the street was fine, the other dead black. This made people even crazier than they would have been in a normal blackout, and since many of them were on vacation—with their Manhattan refrigerators no doubt already emptied, or at least with the deep pockets to refill them at their leisure—they did not seem all that troubled. I called my sister, who was enjoying the use of my new laptop (to us, a novelty), and I think the hotel must have had a generator to keep the air conditioning going, because I slept fine that night, smushed in the same bed with my friend (and, slightly more awkwardly, her mom).
 

Mindy Hung

This time, our office manager was prepared for disaster. She donned an orange reflective vest, grabbed two flashlights, and led us down the stairs. I banded with four of my coworkers, all of whom lived in Astoria, and we started marching from our Midtown offices toward the 59th Street Bridge. We still didn’t know quite what had happened, but the streets had a V-Day atmosphere. Cheers went up from bars and U.P.S. trucks stopped to pick up pretty ladies. We bought Gatorade and I got through on my cell phone to my parents in western Canada, who told me what had happened. “Not just New York,” my father cried, “all of southern Ontario!” On the crowded bridge, my colleagues and I called out “Marco” and listened for the faint “Polo” from our stray coworker, a comforting bleat, telling us that everything would be all right.
 

Nicole Pasulka

Waking groggy and soaked in sweat from a nap, I couldn’t read the digital clock on my nightstand. It was a hot day, but it shouldn’t have been this hot. Clock wasn’t working; neither were my fan, lights, and refrigerator, I learned after closer inspection. Blackout: cool. Blackout across the entire eastern seaboard: electric. Upon my roommate’s safe return from work—she walked from Midtown to Park Slope, Brooklyn—we proceeded to meet and drink with the entire neighborhood before retiring to the roof of our building to finish the wine, the beer, and, oh hell why not, the whisky, too. New York City had thrown a rager while the folks were out of town. Roommate passed out on the roof and I headed back to my 100-degree room with, well, let’s just say someone I liked better with the lights off.
 

Billy Hoya

I was sitting at home, watching TV, and wondering why some blackout in New York City was getting so much coverage. Of course, the blackout was much larger than New York, but most of the media attention was focused there. Being a native Houstonian and veteran of several hurricanes, extended blackouts are old hat for me. Still, there is something magical about a blackout; people wondering away from their TVs and computers, actually socializing. It was nice to see New Yorkers getting to experience some of that.
 

Justin

I was taking batting practice at a high school baseball field that afternoon, so I had no idea anything had happened. When we got back to our cars, the radios didn’t work, but we figured it was just a signal problem. I didn’t realize what had happened until I made it to a 7-11, and I didn’t really believe anyone. It sounded like people were blowing things out of proportion.

I had a first date that night, but I couldn’t call her to cancel (cell phones were down) so I drove in the dark and waited in the parking lot for her. The intersections were treacherous because the traffic lights were out. I went in case she felt bad and showed up anyway. She didn’t.
 

Jessica Francis Kane

I was in Virginia with a sleepless seven-month-old! I barely remember it. Everything was dim then. I probably envied everybody in the northeast a chance to get more sleep.
 

Giles Turnbull (in the U.K.)

What? There was some sort of blackout or something?

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers