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Lights Go Out in City That Never Sleeps

August 15, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) _ In Times Square, the crossroads of the world, all the neon and bright lights were impossibly dark Thursday afternoon. Giovanna Leonardo stood in an enormous line, waiting for the bus above a subway station where no trains were running.

``It feels like Sept. 11 all over again,″ said Leonardo, 26, of Staten Island. ``It’s that ‘What’s going on?’ feeling.″

What was going on was plenty of nothing: no power, no air conditioning, no traffic lights, no subways after the power went pffft at 4:11 p.m. on a steamy August day. People were stranded outside Grand Central Terminal and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, or inside elevators and trains.

``Wherever the trains were when the electricity went out,″ said a transit spokesman, ``that’s where they are right now.″

In Manhattan, where finding a $1,500-a-month studio apartment is considered a coup, people were instead desperately seeking ice, water, batteries and candles. People gobbled ice cream from street vendors before it melted, and gathered around battery-operated radios for updates.

Gouging started quickly, with stores inflating their prices on everything from deodorant to tooth brushes.

Traffic at bridges and tunnels entering the city was turned away, while the outbound evening rush hour turned into a horn-blowing gridlock. Broadway went dark _ literally _ with all shows canceled, and the New York Mets called off their baseball game against the San Francisco Giants.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the sun set, promised things would look brighter by sunrise. ``Tomorrow, we’ll be back up to business as usual,″ the mayor said.

Within two hours, police and firefighters had searched the city’s major high-rise buildings and believed no one was trapped. Firefighters were opening subway car doors and steering people through the underground to safety.

Other escapes were more difficult. Allan Feldman walked down 21 flights of stairs at the 102-story Empire State Building, the city’s tallest.

On the subway line running across the Manhattan Bridge, riders pried open the doors of some cars, climbed out and made their way down to the adjoining lanes of traffic.

Bloomberg quickly assured New Yorkers that terrorism was not involved _ the first thought that occurred to Manhattan hair stylist Renato Vasconcelos.

``This is just too weird,″ he said after giving six panicked customers a quick rinse.

Manhattan streets were flooded with pedestrians, most with no idea of how they might get home to the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, New Jersey or Connecticut. ``Westchester for $,″ read a sign held by one woman standing near Gov. George Pataki’s East Side office, headed for the suburbs.

In lower Manhattan, people wandered the streets in a scene far too reminiscent of the World Trade Center attacks. At some intersections, pedestrians stood directing traffic. And in midtown, ex-mayor Rudolph Giuliani shook hands and urged people to remain calm.

``Take it in stride,″ he advised.

Many businesses were forced to shut down early, their cash registers and lights rendered impotent by the massive outage.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, many folks were already walking across the East River on their way home, the same route they’d taken on Sept. 11 or during a transit strike.

Pay phones saw lines a dozen deep as people struggled to call home when their cell phones went out. At Patrick Conway’s, a bar near Grand Central, commuters hurriedly downed beers before the bottles turned warm as temperatures hit a high of 93 degrees.

The bar’s owner, to the delight of his patrons, promised to stay open as long as the power from his generator held out. Nearby, Mark Johnson _ stranded outside the shuttered train station _ sat drinking a can of beer with a friend.

``We’re taking in the sights,″ he said. ``You can’t let it get to you.″

Power went out in all five boroughs as well as the suburbs in the worst outage to strike the nation’s largest city since 1977, when electricity disappeared for 25 hours.

Wisconsin tourist Cathy Ley, 46, left her Times Square hotel to join thousands of others on the street.

``We wanted to come out where there was light,″ she said. ``We want to see the lights tonight. We hope it doesn’t last too long.″

The city’s subway stations were plunged into darkness, with passengers waiting on platforms before heading upstairs for a bus. Buses were packed past capacity, and with good reason: they were among the only places in the city where the air conditioning was still blowing.

City hospitals, for the most part, were operating normally on generators. The Port Authority said all passengers had been safely evacuated from 10 trains that were stuck under the Hudson River or underground when the power went out.

At Kennedy International and LaGuardia Airports, all takeoffs were stopped but incoming flights were allowed to land. Both airports were working on backup power sources.

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