Where were you during the blackout of 2003?
About 50 million people lost power Aug. 14, 2003, when a tree branch in Ohio started an outage that cascaded across a broad swath from Michigan to New England and Canada. Commuters in New York City and elsewhere had to sleep on steps, hitchhike or walk home as trains were rendered powerless and gas pumps stopped working; food spoiled as refrigerators and freezers thawed; jugs of water sold out as supply plants lost their ability to supply consumers; minds were set to wandering about terrorism fears less than two years after 9/11. Ten years later, The Associated Press asked several people: Where were you during the blackout of 2003?
Cara O’Neill’s water broke. Then the power went out.
She raced to her home in Norwalk, Conn., to meet her husband and go to the hospital. With traffic lights out, it was a harrowing drive through jammed streets.
“The doctor said, ‘You better come right away. We don’t know how long it will take,’” she said. “It was just scary.”
She felt relieved when she arrived at Greenwich Hospital, which was running on a generator.
“It was hotter than hell that day,” she said. “The hospital at least had air.”
Her son was born before dawn the next day.
O’Neill, 42, said she and her family recently took out newspaper articles to reminisce with her almost 10-year-old son, dubbed “the blackout baby” by local media.
“We talk about it all the time,” she said.
AT THE EPICENTER
Marlene Anielski had a front-row seat to the genesis of the blackout in Walton Hills, Ohio, where she was mayor in 2003.
“I was taking something out of my car, and I was bending in my car and heard a loud boom and then I heard a second loud boom,” said Anielski, now a Republican state representative. “I actually called 911, my police department.”
She thought a natural gas explosion might have destroyed a house in the hilly, tree-lined village southeast of Cleveland. Instead, it was simply the result of a branch scraping a high-voltage line.
“There was a young man, I think he was a teenager at the time, taking a shower, and I believe that some of his appliances were smoking. The dishwasher, the microwave, they were smoking inside the house.”
The mayor went into action, offering residents without power for air conditioners on the hot day a chance to cool off in the village hall, which had a backup generator. She felt grateful no one in town was injured.
“We could have had people electrocuted,” she said.
She prefers to think that Walton Hills didn’t cause the blackout but was the unwitting middleman, “the straw that broke the camel’s back that was already taking place on the grid.”
SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING ... BLACK?
Lysa Stanton is still known as the Blackout Bride around Cleveland.
Ten years ago, she was handling a last-minute errand with her future husband before their wedding the next day when the traffic signals and storefronts went dark. Office workers and shoppers began streaming into parking lots.
“It was eerie,” she remembered. “All of sudden everyone came out. That’s what scared me.’”
Instead of having dinner with the wedding party that evening, she was looking for flashlights, can openers and batteries. “To some people this was an inconvenience; to me, this was the night before my wedding,” she said.
The hotel where Stanton planned to spend the night didn’t have power, so she ended up at her fiance’s house, eating melting Popsicles and ice cream and wondering, “What am I doing? Is this a sign?”
“I’d be lying if I say that didn’t cross my mind 110 times,” she said, recalling that she didn’t sleep at all that night. “We laugh now; I don’t think then I was doing any laughing.”
She was interviewed by television news crews then, and people remember her story, including her florist. But it’s mostly family and friends who still bring it up.
On Wednesday, Stanton and husband, Dave Pfister, will celebrate their 10th anniversary with friends and family. They plan on turning out the lights — for just a moment.
THE BEST SANDWICH EVER
After two hot, loud, windows-open nights without power in his apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, George Strayton had had enough.
His parents had electricity in their home in suburban Rockland County, and he learned via landline that buses were running to carry people out of town. So the screenwriter set out on foot for the Port Authority Bus Terminal, more than 3 miles away.
The city felt like an urban desert, with few people or cars on the streets and no stores open to offer a cool drink, he remembers. But when he finally got to the bus terminal, he was soon on a bus to a transfer point at what was then Giants Stadium in New Jersey.
As he stepped off the bus, a volunteer handed him a bottle of water and pointed out a table spread with sandwiches for the electricity exiles. Before long, Strayton was eating lunch on another bus to his destination.
“It was slightly surreal, which is why I’ll never forget the whole thing,” he recalled. “Especially that pesto chicken sandwich.”
MORE THAN SHE BARGAINED FOR
You know it’s a regional blackout when ... you’re sleeping on the hallway floor in your own apartment because it’s packed with more than a dozen of your co-workers, roommates and friends.
Joan Vollero lived in Manhattan near the children’s television company where she was working when the lights went out. So she extended an invitation to colleagues wrestling with how to get to homes farther away.
“I didn’t realize how many people were going to take me up on that offer,” Vollero recalled.
A band of co-workers — some of whom she barely knew — joined her at the small sixth-floor, three-bedroom walk-up she shared with two roommates. One colleague felt faint and needed a bed, so Vollero gave up hers.
“I remember it being a fun night — not a crazy night,” says Vollero, now a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney. “It was co-workers coming together in difficult circumstances and making the best of the situation.”
It’s many New Yorkers’ worst nightmare. The power goes out while you’re in the subway, and you get stuck on a train in the dark with hundreds of strangers.
For Mike Markowitz, at the time a building doorman, that became reality as his train barreled under Manhattan on his way home to Queens.
Though the train got stuffy with no air conditioning, passengers stayed fairly calm as they were instructed to head to one end of the train, and then walked a short way through the tunnel before climbing up to the street, he said.
Ten years later, he doesn’t recall whether they exited through a station or other stairwell, or how long it took. But he does remember walking home for the next four hours — “the longest walk I ever took in my life,” said Markowitz, who now works in a courthouse.
“It was scary,” Markowitz recalled this week, but “I don’t think it was as scary as 9/11.”
But also he remembers a good side to the blackout: “It brought a lot of the people together in the city.”
As unnerving as the blackout was for everyday people, imagine if you were in charge of a part of the electrical grid just next door.
On Aug. 14, 2003, that man was Mike Kormos, vice president of operations for PJM Interconnection, the group in southeastern Pennsylvania that oversees the electric grid for 13 states.
Kormos was at a meeting away from his office when a PJM administrator called and connected him to a shift supervisor, who told him there was a blackout to the north.
“I thought he was kidding,” Kormos said. “I’ve been 25 years on this job and never got that call, and hope I never get that call again.”
Philadelphia and its surrounding region was largely unaffected by the blackout because PJM was able to continue transmitting power while managing waves of power fluctuations. Had the blackout spread to the area, millions more people would have been affected.
“Because it was on the heels of 9/11, it was a little scary,” Kormos said, “because we didn’t know what had happened.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn.; Jennifer Peltz in New York City, John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio; Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland; and Keith Collins in Philadelphia.