July 13 marks the 40th anniversary of the blackout that paralyzed New York City in 1977.
On a hot, humid, summer evening, a lightning strike at a sub-station on the Hudson River triggered havoc on the transmission lines. Following a series of mistakes and miscalculations, the entire Con Edison system shut down, forcing all of New York City into the darkness at 9:36 p.m. We here on Long Island were spared the plunge back into the dark ages thanks to our power company (remember LILCO?) being able to work their magic and keep our lines working.
Many businesses were already closed when complete darkness hit, and with people congregating outside to assess the situation, it created a perfect storm for the mayhem that was about to occur. The evening was about to morph into something even darker than New York City without any lights.
More than 4,500 people were arrested during the chaos that ensued and more than 550 police officers were injured. The NYC Fire department put out 1,037 fires overnight while the citizens held their breath, waiting for daylight to arrive and break the spell. When the dust settled, more than 1,600 businesses had been damaged or destroyed.
Reliving the stories of turmoil during the Blackout of 1977 brought me back to the blackout I experienced as a kid in Brooklyn in November of 1965. Of course, everything that happened “back then” was better, or at least our memories of it are carefully crafted to remember only the good that came of it.
Back then, I was taking swimming lessons at the YMCA on Tuesday afternoons and would be picked up by a relative, whom I used to call Uncle Nick, around 5:30. My mother and brother would be at my Uncle Joe’s house, where we would all meet up for dinner when my father came home.
While driving home with Uncle Nick, we got to a traffic light that wasn’t working. It was unusual, but nothing to be alarmed about. Then he noticed all the street lights were out and by the time we completed the 10-minute drive, people were starting to mill around in the darkened streets, brandishing candles.
My mother and Aunt Faye, along with every other mother on the block, were in the middle of preparing dinner at 5:27 p.m. when the lights went out. Soon they were on the phone with other relatives, trying to confirm what seemed obvious, the lights were out all over the place.
Crazy talk of an alien attack was cool with us kids, but seemed to be frightening the adults. As news reports of the cause of the blackout began coming across the battery-operated radios, the initial shock of losing power began to wane.
It seemed power was out in the entire Northeast, but they expected to have it restored in a few hours. This reassuring news changed everything from a worrisome experience into a giddy, after-work gathering. We were way too young to know if alcohol was involved, but you can make your own assumptions.
There was a sense of camaraderie going on, at least in our little section of Brooklyn. Neighbors were sharing candles and helping each other get through the crisis, making the best of the situation. The blackout even sparked a light-hearted movie starring Doris Day called Where Were Your When the Lights Went Out?
Thirty million people in eight states in the Northeast, roughly 80,000 square miles, were out of power for up to 13 hours. Brooklyn got power back sometime after 11 p.m. that night. Most people who faced that blackout think of it fondly as a happening they will never forget.
Many of our parents’ generation grew up without a dependency on electricity, so maybe that’s why there was no widespread panic. To them, this was their “back then.”
That night, across the five boroughs, New York recorded the lowest amount of crime on any night in documented history. Only five people were arrested for looting and there was no property damage reported. I guess people stayed home and made the best of the situation.
And curiously enough, nine months later, the number of live births was higher than expected…