'From lights out to lights on': 20 years since the 2003 blackout

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Monday, August 14, 2023
20 years later: Revisiting the blackout of 2003
On its 20th anniversary, N.J. Burkett walks us through one of the defining moments in U.S. history: the blackout of 2003.

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- New York City is often referred to as the 'city that never sleeps.' On Aug. 14, 2003, however, a major power outage left about 50 million people across the Northeast in darkness -- with New York City largely at a standstill.

August 14, 2003 is remembered as a hot, sticky summer day. The largest city in America is switched off at 4:11 p.m. -- office workers poured into the streets, traffic lights went out and gridlock gripped the city.

Firefighters rescued thousands stranded in elevators while thousands more were stranded two stories underground after the entire New York City subway system lost power.

Passengers inched their way along the grimy walls, staggering through the tunnels in near total darkness.

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Roughly 400 trains were stranded that night. With no way to get home, suburban commuters slept on the steps of the Midtown post office on a long, dark, sweltering night.

The blackout forced the evacuation of workers and players from Shea Stadium hours before the Mets-Giants game. It was the only Major League Baseball game affected by the blackout.

The cause was traced to a power company in Ohio where operators failed to control a minor blackout before a surge in power overwhelmed the regional power grid. Within minutes, power was out from eastern Canada to Michigan and Ohio, on to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and up into New England.

Power was restored in the city after about 29 hours, but it took up to four days in some places.

There were very few instances of looting and many New Yorkers tried to make the best of it. It would be several more hours before the trains were running again.

Herb Lambert of NYC Transit says technology is better and so is communication with Con Ed.

"They can give us a heads up and say, 'Hey, it looks like something is going on,' we can get trains into stations and we can hold them until we find out what's happening," Lambert said.

RELATED | Watch more of our 75th anniversary videos here.

In this flashback to 2003, watch Eyewitness News provide team coverage in the days following one of the biggest blackouts in U.S. history.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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