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People Find Ways to Cope With Blackout

August 15, 2003

Chad Burns was on a jetliner, hurtling toward New Jersey, when the power went out below. The pilot came on the public address system. They were headed toward a big mess, he warned.

The pilot was right. At the Newark Liberty International Airport, the gateways were inoperable, the air conditioning non-existent and the baggage unclaimable.

``Tempers were high; the smell was sweet,″ said Chad Burns, 31, who waited 90 minutes for the luggage carousel to turn, in 90-plus temperatures that soared under the terminal’s massive glass windows, baking a stranded and cranky populace.

In airports and elevators, in maternity wards and on roller coasters, millions of people from the Northeast to the Midwest lost in an instant something taken for granted since Thomas Edison perfected his light bulb. It was the largest blackout in U.S. history.

When the juice stopped flowing, the misery began. Then candles were rediscovered as a primary light source, feet were used for transport instead of trains and cars, and people began to move on, sometimes in total darkness.

In Michigan, workers at the state capitol received an omnious computer message: ``You have 110 seconds to get off this system.″

Workers scrambled to save what was on their screens. And then started down 12 stifling flights of stairs.

In Cleveland, women in a maternity ward _ rarely a painless place to be _ were giving birth the old-fashioned way, without electricity or even a brush of soothing air.

``Everyone is especially hot because the air-conditioning is off. Our laboring moms are suffering,″ said delivery nurse Olga Kropko, in true understatement.

At the 57-story Key Bank building in the same city, Evette Burrucker trudged down the stairwell in a daze.

``I lost count, I walked down so many stairs,″ she said. ``I was scared a little bit, but I just kept coming down.″

On a roller coaster in Massachusetts, thankfully on a horizontal stretch of track, Kim Hicks of Baltic, Conn., came to an unscheduled stop at the Six Flags over New England amusement park.

``We were on the Cyclone roller coaster when the power went out,″ she said. ``Luckily it was where it was flat, thank God, not up on top. We sat there about 20 minutes and they finally came to walk us off.″

Martha Eberling sat on a brick wall in Detroit and wondered how she’d get home to Windsor, Ontario. But she was very happy to not be sitting in a stalled elevator anymore.

For more than an hour, with seven others, Eberling waited in a downtown building for someone to rescue them.

``It was pitch black in there. There was absolutely no light,″ she said. ``But once they got to us, it only took them two minutes to pry us out.″

And as afternoon gave way to unlit night, those whose power remained off took to the streets.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., presumably from gas-powered ovens, pizza emerged and residents drank beer on the street. Thousands walked home in the gathering darkness, streaming across bridges in throngs not seen since Sept. 11, 2001.

Candles came out, bars stayed open and, in flagrant violation of New York’s stringent anti-smoking laws, people lit up in bars across the state.

In the heart of New York’s jewelry district, on the third floor of a Manhattan diamond seller, Lyle Fields had been talking business and counting money when the lights snapped off and the air-conditioning burped and quit.

Surrounded by diamonds and cut off from alarms made for not the safest circumstance. But Fields, a wholesaler visiting from Alabama, kept buying. ``Then after awhile,″ he said, ``it was like ‘Let’s be smart and put this stuff away.’ ``

Then he walked a few blocks down 48th Street, bought a beer and stood in front of a pub, smoking and drinking.

``New York,″ he said with an indulgent sigh, ``the way it’s supposed to be.″

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