Remembering the 2003 Blackout

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ten years ago, on Aug. 14, 2003, a series of cascading power failures led to a blackout that spread all the way from the Northeast to Ohio. Some 50 million people were affected; the power outages lasted up to 31 hours. New York City was especially hard hit as the skyline went dark, and its 8 million residents coped without traffic lights or subways.

We went through our audio archives to produce this remembrance.

Share your memories of the blackout with WNYC. Leave a comment below, or call 855-8-MY-WNYC and leave a message.

With help from WNYC's Archives Department.

This story originally aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered on Sunday, August 11, 2013.


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Comments [16]

Randy from bronx

I had drove from the Bronx to Brooklyn to pick up a beautiful woman it was our first date after meeting on the internet we drove to Coney Island to enjoy the beach when we got there I parked my jeep we took out the blanket water cooler and radio it was a hot day, we went on the board walk to the food stand near the cyclone and I heard one of the cooks say his grill just went out, I had no idea that the black out just had started the time was about 4:15pm I we got the food went on the beach we found a good spot to lay out the blanket I turned on my radio and notice I couldn't get any stations I thought the batteries was bad but it wasn't the batteries then I turn the radio to 1010 wins and they was talking about the Black Out of 1977 and they kept talking about the 77 black out the they said "this black out is too early to call then they said it was a major Black Out in NYC I couldn't believe it I told my date we was in a Black Out she said what I called my brother to see if he was ok he said he just got in the house and all the street lights was out then people started coming around my radio to hear the news people was starting to leave the beach to find a way home, me and my date stayed an hour then we headed back to the jeep because I didn't want to stay until it got dark because I remember the last black out in 1977 how bad it was and how they looted all night and tore up NYC so I took my date home and it took me 5 hours to get back to the Bronx because of the traffic and people walking in the streets I had to beg to get across the Manhattan Bridge then I got to Manhattan it was pitch dark my head lights pave the way for me I took the local road up to 125th ST then I came across from the West Side Highway to Lenox Ave then took Lenox Avenue up to 145th ST bridge people every where then I made it home it was very hot in my house I had to sit in the dark then I took out my candles and burn them all night , I had two cats at the time so I had to watch them to make sure they didn't knock over the candles, it was a day that I will never forget.

Nov. 25 2014 05:28 PM
Patti J. from Brooklyn, NY

Got married!

Aug. 15 2013 03:26 PM
Paula Hornbostel from New York, NY

I remember the blackout of 2003 vividly:

We had left our 2 eldest daughters w my parents on long island and come into ny to check on the renovation of our apartment.
Our youngest was strapped to me in a baby b. We were hot in the apartment when the blackout happened --we didn't notice because the apartment had no power to go off.
We realized when we had to get down...the stairs.
I played backgammon with my neighbor-to-be on the couch in the lobby, by the light of a generator.
I made my way to the local market
And as I walked up the 14 flights of stairs for the night, armed with some bread and cheese, a candle and my baby, I pondered the oddity of the market where I had bought these items: should prices be higher because of the frantic demand of people stocking up, or lower because everything would soon perish?

The next day, our car was stuck on a lift in our garage, so we went to the west side where they had power. We wanted to rush back to see the children, really, but the cost of a taxi to Long Island was prohibitive and the air conditioning of the movie theatre was so cool. This time thebaby was strapped to my husband.

Aug. 14 2013 10:43 PM
Suzanne Nixon from White Plains, NY

I was undergoing cancer treatment for pediatric bone cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I went to the bathroom and returned to my bed in the pediatric day hospital. I plugged my IV pump into the outlet and the lights went out on the entire floor. Word spread - it was the entire floor, hosptial, city and finally northeast. I thought I caused the blackout of 2003. My father and I drove slowly up First Avenue to the FDR and back to Westchester. It was an exciting day. Oh and 10 years cancer free!

Aug. 14 2013 07:26 PM
Aileen Neill from Brightwaters,ny

It was our sons 11th birthday. It was a steamy hot day and we were looking forward to going to a long island ducks game for his birthday with his firiends and cousins. Some of our cousins where traveling down from Canada. When the electricity went out. We all first thought it might have been a terrorist attack due to our very still vivid 9/11 memories. Well when it was finally confirmed it was a true power outage. The party went on "Long island style" ...all the neighbors were outside talking and helping each other if needed but, we had a unique situation. We had a gang of kids at our house a little bummed out about nit going to the game but our next dorris neighbor opened up their pool to all the kids....we went to the local pizza place that had a wood burning oven and Voila, an impromptu party! The kids had a blast and we were relieved all was well in New York and of course blamed "the Canadian" cousins for causing the outage when then went through Niagara.

Happy 21st birthday Rob! A great memory.

Aug. 14 2013 06:28 PM
Ken from Upper West Side

A friend and I rode our bikes into Central Park and circled the Great Lawn. Where the city's glittering skyline should have been was utter darkness, and an eerie stillness enveloped us. I may be misremembering this, but I think we could see stars.

Aug. 14 2013 06:10 PM
Vlad S.

My good friend, Dani, just reminded me that we were in NYC 10-years ago today. Right about now (10 years ago), we were at the MoMA checking out the mummies. Then all of a sudden the lights went out. Yep, it was the 2003 blackout. After hanging out on the steps of the MoMA for about a half hour with other museum patrons, we realized the power wasn't coming back on. We decided to go to central park to do essentially the only thing you could do at the time: nothing. We were in luck, at least a little, as it was an exceptionally beautiful sunny day. After a little while hanging in the park, a cop stopped by and suggested we leave because, " you kids don't want to get stuck here when it gets dark." We took her advice and started our trek to find some flashlights and food, that turned out to be a more than a trivial task. As we walked along the upper west side, we noticed the buses were all packed full of passengers like sardines and a there was an endless stream of pedestrians walking uptown like salmon swimming up river. Some people were even riding the buses aimlessly as that was the only place one could get some air conditioning.

When we finally found a small corner store that was still open, we got in line to go inside. That's right, you had to wait in line outside to actually go inside the store where one of the two the store attendants would accompanying you throughout the store with a flashlight until you were done shopping. We bought some food and some candles they were sold out of flashlights) and went on our way to find the most important item of the evening... beer.

It was a truly unique experience. Everywhere you went NYC had transformed into a small neighborhood of friendly strangers. People were hanging out on stoops, playing music, drinking beers, making conversation with the constant flow of random passers-by.

The highlight of the night was no-doubt the guy roller-blading down Broadway in the dark, covered head-to-toe in a Tron-like fluorescent light-suit. As he skated by, people cheered at him as though they just saw a superhero; you could hear it blocks away. After a couple luke-warm beers, we decided to call it a night. After all I had a job interview at Mount Sinai Hospital the next morning.

Eventually, I ended up accepting a different position at a Harvard virology lab; but this week in NYC was definitively my introduction to living on the East coast. That was Ten years ago today.

Aug. 14 2013 02:25 PM
Richard from Brooklyn

I was in Union Square and suddenly traffic went berserk. I hadn't noticed that the traffic signals were no longer working. I went down into the subway and the lights were flickering like they did in "A Night to Remember" as the ship was going down. I finally realized what was happening and walked south to Delancy St and then home to Brooklyn over the Williamburg Bridge with what seemed to be a million people. There was no power at work the next day so I rode to Manhattan by bike and had falafel at Mamoun's

Ah, summer fun.

It took 3 days for power to be restored at home.

Aug. 14 2013 12:41 PM
Randy from Bronx

I remember just getting to Coney Island with my date and we went on the board walk to the food stand to by some food and they was talking about the grill stop working i had no idea that the lights had went out at that point, it was about 4:15 pm in the afternoon so we got the food and went to the beach sat on the sand i had my radio and i notice the station i had wouldn't come on so i turn the radio to Wins 1010 and i heard them talking about the 1977 black out and they kept talking about it and i said to her why are they talking about the 1977 black out then i heard them say this blackout is too early to compare to the 1977 black out then i knew that we was in a black out then i told her , so she called her family i called my brother he was ok but his wife had to walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn, i stayed on the beach for an hour then we headed back to my jeep because people was getting worried and was leaving the beach so i took her home and on the way home the street was starting to get crowded with people people was stuck on the rides at Coney Island they had to turn on the generator to get them down, after i dropped her off in Brooklyn i had to drive home to the Bronx and boy what a mess going back home traffic every where no one could cross the bridges except for people so i had to show them my ID from the NYC Dept of Sanitation to get across the bridge so they let me go , i ended up on the west side highway i took that to 125th street and came all the way across to Lenox ave then took that up to 145th st to the bridge then went home it took me about 4 hours to get home i will never forget that day

Aug. 14 2013 11:37 AM
Julie from NYC

My friend Gelsey Bell wrote a great song about this:

Aug. 14 2013 11:06 AM

I was on Fire Island, and when the power went out there was one transistor radio at the one store that people suddenly crowded around to find out what was up. When we found out it was a massive power failure covering a lot of the Northeast we half-joked about nuclear war. But only half. 9/11 was still fresh in our minds then.

Aug. 14 2013 10:49 AM
Lane Bolton

I was in my office building on the 20th floor. The building went black and I grabbed the flashlight I'd bought after 911. Everyone in the building walked down 20 floors and came outside where nobody seemed to know what was going on. Cell phones weren't working, people were scared, it brought back all the images and feelings of 911.

Aug. 14 2013 10:30 AM
David S. from Manhattan

The night of the blackout also happened to be the night that I proposed to my now wife. I had everything planned and had been thinking about how to “pop the question” for weeks. My plan was for us to have dinner at Babbo where at the end of the meal they would come out with dessert and written in chocolate around the plate would have been “Will you marry me?” Earlier that year we had gone to Babbo for my birthday and my now wife had set up the same thing with “Happy Birthday”. Not exactly an original idea but it was a place we both liked.

I had been at work all day with the ring in my pocket and very anxious about the whole thing when the lights went out. We waited and waited… Nothing came back on. At that point, I called her and we agreed to scrap dinner plans. After all, it was just a nice dinner to her. We agreed to meet at her apartment, me walking from midtown and her from lower Manhattan. When we got there, we opened a bottle of wine, pulled an impromptu dinner from the fridge, spread it out in the living room and had our own little picnic. That is when I asked her to marry me.

She said yes and we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our engagement last weekend with another picnic in the living room. Candlelight and all.

Had we actually gone to Babbo, I’m sure we wouldn’t have remembered and celebrated like we did.

Aug. 14 2013 10:23 AM
David Ackerman

My mother was visiting and was at the Helmsley plaza. We were stuck on 26th floor and I remember walking down the darkened stairs and then back up to get food to bring back to her. So we stayed playing gin rumey using those Sadaam hussain plahing cards

Aug. 14 2013 09:54 AM
Allison Watters from 25th St. & Lexington Ave., Manhattan, 10010

I was employed at my very first job. My boss was out of the office at a client site in another area of town. He called and asked if our electricity was out as well, because the area of town he was in had lost power. I immediately left the office. I did not care if I got fired or reprimanded. 9-11 was too close in my memory and my job was too unimportant for me to wait and see why so much of NYC did not have power.
That evening, I met all of my neighbors, because everyone went to the roof, pulled out their (illegal) grills, and we all grilled all the meat we had in our refrigerators before it spoiled. We waved to others on rooftops, and stared at the glowing gold top of on 27th and Park Ave discussing the building's generator. That night, my friends and I ventured out to Union Square, which was having its own party, and men in suits were sleeping in the grass, because they couldn't get back to homes in New Jersey and Westchester. There was a lot of joy in the air.
The next morning -- still no electricity and no update on when it would be restored -- I went back to my office and raided the refrigerator there, recognizing that people weren't coming back for their food. I took fruit and other food that did not necessarily need to be refrigerated, and I shared it with my friends who were staying with me because they couldn't get back to their "far-away" apartments in the boroughs.
My one regret is that I didn't go to Times Square, where the lights never go off.
I never want there to be another black-out, but in hindsight, it was a fun experience.

Aug. 14 2013 09:32 AM
Charlie Waters from Brooklyn

Ten years ago I was in Times Square when the power went out - and I wrote this song about my "escape" -

Aug. 14 2013 08:42 AM

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