On August 14, 2003 the East Coast of the United States, and even parts of Canada, went dark at around 4:10 p.m. Twenty-one power plants shut down in just three minutes, leaving an estimated 50 million people without power—in 90-degree heat. In large cities, including New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto and Ottawa, key operations, such as subways, commuter trains, cell phone transmitters and banks, were suddenly rendered out of commission. While power was restored in some areas by 11 p.m., most would not get their power back for two days. Here’s a look at how people in the largest affected city—New York—dealt with the blackout.
With few options to access information about the major power outage, a crowd of people gathered around a battery-powered radio to listen to the news.
Batteries were in high demand across the city, and sold out quickly. This crowd, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lined up at the local hardware store for batteries to power fans, flashlights and radios.
Transit was crippled during the blackout—just as many people started to make their way home for the day. Subway cars that had been operating during the blackout slowed to a half and were left stranded underground. Crowded train cars across all five boroughs had to be evacuated.
With no access to the subway, the streets filled with people looking for a way to get home. Some pedestrians got creative by hitching a ride on the back of a New York City bus.
Not everyone was able to use the limited NYC transit options available. David Eisenberg, who had commuted in on the Long Island Railroad, stood in Time Square with a sign looking to get a ride home.
It was only two years since the city had endured the September 11 attacks and many New Yorkers feared the blackout had also been caused by terrorists. On the night of August 14th, thousands of people started to make their way home on foot over bridges, crowding the streets and creating total gridlock.
Iconic views around the city became unrecognizable in the dark. Times Square, known for its bright lights at all hours fell dark just like the rest of the East Coast.
As the blackout carried on to the following day, many New Yorkers tried to carry on as usual. Here, Peachy Garcis soaps up near a fire hydrant for a quick shower in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The power outage affected many businesses, including those with perishable items that needed refrigeration. Here, Natalie Matos looks over a limited supply of meat at the supermarket. (AP Photo/Diane Bondareff)
Many tourists who had had booked air-conditioned hotel rooms resorted to sleeping outside on the sidewalk when the power went out, rather than staying inside their stuffy rooms.
Commuters waited for their trains at Grand Central Station on day two of the blackout as the city remained without electricity.
Buses and ferries were the only mass transportation options for stranded commuters who rely on subways and rail. Hordes of people were forced to squeeze into the limited buses that continued operating.
A stranded traveler sleeps in the baggage claim area at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Flight delays at airports in New York City stranded travelers for up to 48 hours or more.