A short memoir of the 1977 NYC Blackout.
At first we thought that some local joker was playing with the lights inside the gym. My summer league team was here in Queens, well into the first half and already 15 points ahead of the home team. But with players like Nate Archibald, Rick Sobers, Arnold Dugger, and wearing the same uniform, it was easy to understand shutting off the lights to avoid the humiliation of the continuing supremacy of the Bronx over Queens. But as the minutes wore on, spectators in the stands flicked on cigarette lighters and struck matches in order to have the light needed to safely vacate this school gymnasium which apparently had no windows. Finally outside the relatively modern complex, we could see that streetlamps were out and the only light was from a hazy summer night moon hanging above us and car headlights passing by. My friend and sports agent at the time Arnie Jacobs had driven me to the game. He always enjoyed watching a good basketball game, and if Nate Archibald and Julius Erving were going to be playing on the same court, then he could surely pass up Archie Bunker and Edith on TV, to drive me out to Queens.
The following is 1 of 7 clips of a BBC documentary on the City and the blackout. Play the related videos once the 1st one concludes.
As we drove down darkened streets headed for the Triboro Bridge and back to the Bronx, the big picture slowly came into focus. Telephone lines were overloaded, gas pumps were out of order and water could not be pumped above the lower floors of most buildings. Elevators had stopped running and the subway system was paralyzed. It was July 13, 1977 and Blackout II had come to New York without warning or explanation, leaving the great metropolis, blind, crippled and totally disoriented.
I can remember it clearly. How Arnie and I had left the gym, jumped in his car, and at my request, headed straight for my grandmothers house in Harlem. How our worse fears were realized when crossing the Triboro Bridge, seeing the Manhattan skyline, usually glowing majestically, like glittering jeweled towers, was now a dark eerie shadow silhouetted against an even darker evening sky. It was far beyond our urban imaginations, that anything like this could happen in our perfect world.
This is the technical account of how the blackout took place.
After making sure my Grandmother was as fine, we crossed the 155th Street Bridge into the Bronx and sped onto the Major Deegan. Luckily the Yankees were out of town that night, where they split a 2 game series with the Milwaukee Brewers. The crowds and the traffic would have been unbearable and the risk of injury and damage in and around Yankee Stadium is too much to imagine. We exited at 230th Street and dropped in at my parents place in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx on Broadway. What a stroke of luck it was, that they lived only one flight up, I thought at the time. Some neighbors had the unenviable bad fortune to walk up 10, 12 and 15 flights of stairs to get home.
Everything was fine there too. My parents had plenty of candles and a transistor radio to keep in touch with the chaos that was going on outside. There was plenty of food to last a couple of days if necessary. Then Arnie dropped me off at home in Riverdale where I only had just 5 flights of stairs to overcome. The house was lit full of candles and my wife of 10 months, greeted me from her reclining chair on the balcony. It was good to be home.
But technically, what really happened that night in the summer of 1977? Was it just a coincidence, aliens, as I very much wanted to believe back then, or was it simply an act of God?
Since that night more than 3 decades ago, dreams and prayers of professional basketball came, consumed my passion and left again, as suddenly as they had appeared. Leaving me with other burning desires and curiosities to pursue in my life. It had taken some time, but finally the game of basketball was out of my system. My quest for learning and mastering new skills was now turned on full-force, to computers, information technology and the pursuit of better and better corporate communications. Thirty years later and now imbedded in the Communications Department of a global power company, I seemed finally in a position to have that lingering, haunting question answered.
Finally, the news broadcast of that day.
The company’s Director of Technology and his assistant, were kind enough to take me on short tour of a facility in Birr, Switzerland where electrical turbines and other related power producing equipment is manufactured. Naturally both men knew the story of the New York Blackout very well. From their explanation of the equipment and more detailed information later from his assistant, I was able to finally understand the reasons behind the NYC Blackout in 1977. Whether I believed them or not, was another story altogether.
In July 1977, the Consolidated Edison Co. the areas major power producer at the time, not only had its own electrical generating plants, but was also connected to a larger network of power producers around the Northeastern USA. There was never any doubt that the electricty needs of 9 million users could be met in any emergency.
That particular evening, the New York metropolitan area was even “hotter than July”. Heat and overwhelming humidity forced New Yorkers to use electric fans and air conditioners at an astounding rate, but even this boost in energy demand had already been anticipated and was well within Con Ed’s capabilities. They had already begun to import additional power from neighboring utilities outside the city. But that night in July 1977, Con Edison experienced a series of events that defied the laws of probability. One spokesman for the company called them “….acts of God.”
Three Strikes, You’re Out
First in a series of bizarre natural occurrences, a severe thunderstorm struck northern Westchester near the Indian Point No. 3 nuclear power plant located on the Hudson River. At about 8:37 pm, flashes of lightning struck and disabled two 345-kilovolt lines which immediately cut off all the electricity from the 900-megawatt Indian Point facility.
The immediate reaction at Con Ed’s main control center in Manhattan, was to compensate for the power loss, which they attempted to do. However, it seems that lightning struck again about 20 minutes later, causing two additional 345-kilovolt lines in Westchester, to shut down. These lines were also responsible for bringing power into the New York area. Defying any normal pattern of coincidence, lightning struck once again a few minutes later at 9:00 pm cutting off power from another line. Then, to make matters worse, circuit breakers specifically designed to reset automatically in case of power failure, failed to respond.
This was all going on somewhere in the background as Arnie and I had finally arrived back in Riverdale. New York had lost more than 2,000 megawatts of power since we had left Queens — more than a third of its electrical power load for that night. Finally deciding to fire up their own turbines, Con Edison quickly replaced 1,000 megawatts of the lost power. Then, in a bold but wise decision to keep the city’s vital subways, hospitals, elevators and other key services running, they began reducing electrical demand by cutting power in some of the less populated sections of Westchester. Even with all the bad omens that had occurred till now, there was still a chance that New York’s power load could be saved by implementing these solutions… and for a few minutes it worked! But that’s when another problem developed. Con Edison’s drain of power began to overheat connecting cables, and the Long Island Lighting Co. was forced to unplug from the system to save itself from a sort of meltdown.
At this point, Con Ed could only rely on three major sources of electricity: its own 1,000-megawatt plant in the borough of Queens and two out-of-state links — one in New Jersey and the others in upstate New York and New England. Then, at about 9:30, beyond all belief and reason, lightning struck again in Westchester and cut off Con Edison’ s last remaining power link. The overwhelming power drain needed to sustain New York, forced the New Jersey link to also cut itself free from the system, leaving the city paralyzed in darkness. In fewer than 60 minutes, the entire power and electrical infrastructure of the New York metropolitan area and a good part of the Northeast, was now totally isolated from any source of electrical power.
That night my wife and I spent a great part of the evening talking, looking across the Hudson River, from our balcony. Pondering how serious this Blackout could be, what caused it and contemplating our small place in this vast universe.
It was 25 hours before all the equipment could be brought back on-line and the lights finally came on again. I think we all learned a lot that night about how vulnerable we are and our dependence on energy to even obtain clean water to drink and gasoline for our cars.
After all these years I was sure the perfectly timed bolts of lightning had been delivered so accurately, so precisely that night, that the thought of any coincidence could not be taken seriously.
The Son of Sam was out and about, on a murderous shooting spree that left the entire city in the grip of fear. He managed to elude the police all summer.until they finally caught him, actually living in the same building as Arnie, my sports agent in Yonkers. Now that was a coincidence. Perhaps another coincidence was fact that the Blackout occurred on July 13th But the series of events that cut off all electricity to the metropolitan area that night seemed impossible to fit into the category of coincidence.
The city’s mayor at the time, Abraham Beame, took the Blackout almost personally and attacked the Con Edison power company with a vengeance, declaring gross negligence, and felt the city should seek damages. Beame, along with other local and state officials, could not accept that four perfectly placed lightning bolts could knock out power across the eastern seabord.
That entire summer of 1977 was a tight with tension. The cities were at the height of social unrest due to fiscal problems and the Viet War was still raging in Southeast Asia. Even the alarming rise of heroin use among young inner city dwellers during that period, was not enough to quiet the angry masses. Looking to the heavens for answers, there had also been an abnormal rise in the number of UFO sightings just before the Blackout, especially around the Northeast.
The best explanation anyone could really give was that it must have been an act of God.