BlackoutAired July 14, 2015
As Wednesday, July 13, 1977 dawned hot and humid, New Yorkers prepared themselves for another sweltering day. It was the first day of a nine-day heat wave that would become the hottest in New York City history. The once-booming city had been suffering years of economic decline. It was on the verge of bankruptcy; both unemployment rates and crime rates were high; police and firefighters had been laid off; municipal services, including sanitation and after-school programs, had been cut; and a serial killer named Son of Sam was still on the loose, keeping everyone on edge.
When a severe thunderstorm hit, the lights went out, and some eight million people plunged into darkness in New York City and surrounding areas. By the time the power was fully restored more than a day later, more than 1,600 businesses had been looted, more than 3,000 people had been arrested, and firefighters had battled more than 1,000 fires. The affected neighborhoods would never be the same.
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Callie T. Wiser
Callie T. Wiser
Original Music by
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Lauren Ezell Kinlaw
Melissa Martin Pollard
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Kevin Zraly, Wine Steward: Imagine yourself on top of One World Trade Center on the 107th floor. Windows On The World restaurant was one of the most magical places on earth, not just in New York City. On a clear day you could see 90 miles, planes flying below you.
And 9:30, anybody in the restaurant business will tell you, is crunch time. I was walking the floor, and all of a sudden I look to my right and Brooklyn is not there anymore. Okay, it's just, where did Brooklyn go? And then I quickly glance over, Queens is gone. It's blackout, there's no, no lights whatsoever. And as soon as I get up to the window and we're overlooking Manhattan, downtown Manhattan, whoosh, lights go out for us.
Jack Feinstein, Assistant Chief System Operator, Con Ed: New York City is a vertical city. There are people in apartment houses that are ten stories high. They don't have any water. They have no lights, and there is a sense of urgency.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: I stopped the car. And there was about 4- or 500 people in that park. And I told my partner, I says, "We're not going down there. Let's get out of here."
Chris "Doc" Vanager, Resident: It wasn't just nighttime. It was total darkness. Everybody was kind of moving in groups. I'm sure they were scared, too, you know, 'cause you don't know who's coming at you.
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: It was like things had reached this boiling point. Once the lights went out, then all hell broke loose.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer : It's like an orgy of violence, arson, and insanity. How do you explain that social phenomenon?
Radio Announcer (archival): Hazy, hot and humid. Highs in the daytimes up near 100, overnight lows down to around 80.
Radio Announcer (archival): A lot of fingers crossed with the continued heat wave.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: July 13th, 1977. I was working my last 4-to-12 in a set of five. It was a beastly hot day. I distinctly remember it was horifally [sic] hot.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: The city's in the midst of a heat wave. Temperatures were routinely hitting 100, above 100.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed: Around 6:00 I headed home. I got home early enough that I got in the pool with the kids. Somewhere around 8:00. it was clear that thunderstorms were going to move in, so we all got out.
Radio Announcer (archival): Severe thunderstorm warning in effect for all of Westchester County in New York. These storms can produce wind gusts, 50 mph and more, lightning, so be advised, whatever precautions seem advisable.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed: My daughter was brushing her teeth and looked out the bathroom window and said, "What's wrong with the sky, Dad? It looks strange." And I said, "Yeah, it's because of all the lightning; there's so much of it, it just stays lit."
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: That evening there was a lightning strike on a power line in Westchester County. The line went out, and the demand starts to increase on some of the surrounding lines.
This sort of essentially sets off a kind of chain reaction, a sort of a domino effect, where another line suddenly has too much power, and it has to be shut down. And then another line is, is over-extended, and it has to be shut down. Everyone's using a lot of power 'cause they're all running air conditioners. And before you know it the city is struggling to get enough power into the five boroughs.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed: I got a call maybe a little bit after nine asking me to call the system operator. I called in. And finally said, "There's no other choice." The only alternative was to disconnect customers.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed (archival audio): You know, you're gonna lose the whole thing. Tell him this is a dire emergency, if he can give us anymore to give it to us.
Con Ed System Operator (archival audio): Right.
Jonathan Mahler: It is one man who is in charge of bringing all of this power in. You have people telling him, yelling at him, "You have to shut down some of these lines. You have to do it, or the city's gonna lose power."
William Kennedy, New York Power Pool: Bill, I hate to bother you, but you'd better shed about 400 megawatts of load or you are going to lose everything down there...
Con Ed System Operator (archival audio): Yeah, I, I'm trying to.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: Anyone who's ever flown in to New York City at night, who's ever been in New York City at night. There are lights everywhere. It's a beautiful image, really, in a way. It's the city that never sleeps. The city where the lights are always on.
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: I was playing handball with my friends. And you can still play at night because there was a lot of lampposts around Jefferson Park. But then all of a sudden they started going out one by one, like -- pop, pop, pop -- and ah, we're like, "Wow, what's happening?"
Carl St. Martin, Medical Student: That night I'm on the third floor, windows open. It was very hot. So people were outside. And suddenly the TV went off. The light went off. The noise outside in the street quickly stopped for a second and suddenly you heard a "gasp" because everybody at the same time realized something had happened.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: I was up in the office. I was catching up on some paperwork and having a cup of coffee and the lights dimmed. The emergency generator roared on and somebody shouted "Blackout," you know?
Kevin Zraly, Wine Steward: One of the things about the Windows on the World right from the very beginning was its dress code. You had to have a jacket and tie. The general manager said to me, "You can tell people they can take their jackets off." Take their jackets off? You know, "Okay, you can take your jackets off." Next thing, the ties are coming off. Next thing, you know, people loosening their shirts.
The general manager got up, and immediately spoke, "Ladies and gentlemen. Everybody's getting champagne."
Radio Report (archival): Now direct from CBS News, this special radio net alert news report. A major power blackout has hit New York City and surrounding communities.
George Michael, Radio Host (archival): Chuck, if you could, what can you tell us about the feel for Midtown Manhattan?
Chuck Leonard, Radio Reporter (archival):Well, George, there are people directing traffic at the intersections. I assume many of them are policemen. Some of them, obviously, are just volunteers, people who wanted to pitch in. But in general people are taking it in good spirit, and almost a little conviviality going on.
Reporter (archival): Where were you when the lights went out?
Man (archival): Radio City Music Hall.
Reporter (archival): What happened in the music hall?
Man (archival): All of sudden all the lights went out. No picture, no sound, nothing. And a man made an announcement about, ah, the power is off in the whole city.
Reporter (archival): And you're waiting for the subway now?
Man (archival): No, there's no subway running.
Reporter (archival): So what are you doing here?
Man (archival): I'm on TV.
Radio Reporter (archival): All I can tell you is that there were severe electrical storms to the north. Lights totally went out about 15 minutes ago.
Radio Reporter (archival): All five boroughs are affected so that's the word. Seven million people are now without power.
Joyce Purnick, Reporter: My beat at the Post was covering politics. I went running over to City Hall, and I spent the night in the command center where we got regular briefings on what they said was going on in the city. The blackout was not the city's fault, but, um, it was an opportunity for the mayor Abe Beame to show the people of New York that he was in control.
Reporter (archival): What are you doing now that this is happening?
Mayor Abe Beame (archival): We are trying to keep on top through every agency in the city to do everything possible to err, to keep things moving, and to keep people alerted and to have people who are with city agencies at their stations in case they are needed.
Joyce Purnick, Reporter: I'm not sure to this day if he, or even the police commissioner, actually knew what was going on, because if they did, they didn't tell us.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: I'm trying to scramble to find out what the big issues are. I called up the fire battalions seeing how things are in their districts. The phones are evidently working. And I told 'em, "Hey, we gotta go down to the subways, make sure those people stuck in those hot trains don't bail out on those third rail tracks." And then we have these portable generators that are useful. You know, hospitals, that's our first priority.
News Reporter (archival): At Bellevue, the city's largest hospital, emergency generator service has been halted by an electrical fire. Steps are being taken to protect the lives of patients on respirators and other necessary electrical equipment. Dr. Stephen Schwartz of New York's Lenox hospital says emergency equipment is working there, but they are bracing for a possible flood of patients.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: Then, you know, I got called to go respond to a fire. And I never returned to the firehouse.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed: I knew this was going to be a very difficult and challenging task to put the power system back together. It's really not made to shut down and restart. It's made to stay in service.
Jack Feinstein, Assistant Chief System Operator, Con Ed: We knew this was gonna be a long, drawn out affair. The restoration plan was out of date because it hadn't been updated since 1965 so between Charlie and I, we made up the plan.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed: Well, there's only two ways to restore the power. One is to bootstrap the system up on its own, or to bring power in from the outside. We both knew that the quickest, fastest way was to get power in from the outside. I said, "I'll take a part from the north. Jack, you take the part from the Long Island Lighting, and at some point we're gonna meet in the middle.
Jerry Nachman, Radio Reporter (archival): Insofar as police are concerned, all off-duty officers are being ordered to their nearest precinct. Not the precinct where they work, but the precinct of residence.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: We didn't know it was a big blackout. The lights went out, but who knew if the lights were gonna stay out. There was no AM/FM radios in the patrol cars at the time. So you had no radio communication with the outside. Our portable radio had died because of the repeaters being out. Well, we go back into the station house, and when we went into the station house that's when we really knew that the pot was cooking.
The station house was in darkness, complete and utter darkness. Everybody's walking around with flashlights, some candles, and it looked like a cross between a Boris Karloff movie and Car 54. The sergeant said, "Go out, do the best you can, come back in a little while. We're gonna have a better plan in place. But go out and do what you can do."
Joshua Freeman, Historian: Twelve years earlier, November 1965, New York City lost its power and it was a very startling event. But, all in all, the city handled it remarkably well. You know, the urban legend was that nine months later births spiked in the city. I don't know if that's actually true, but I think that captivated the sense that most people had of almost a kind of moment out of the ordinary, but not a scary or threatening experience.
Joyce Purnick, Reporter: I remember the blackout of '65 as almost being fun. There was a certain festive atmosphere. People pulled together. There were little get-togethers on the streets.
Elzora Williamson, Resident: Had a bright moon. Everything was peaceful. We were directing traffic. And then we had everybody else to start directing traffic with us. People became helpful to each other, and it went very, very smoothly.
Bruce Porter, Writer: The blackout in 1965 happened at 5:30. So the storeowners were still in their stores locking up. The temperature was between 43 and 48 degrees, right, so people were not out on the street.
Joshua Freeman, Historian: A lot of people simply stayed in their houses. There was no real sense of panic. There was no increase in crime. In the end, really no big deal.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: New York had been this great kind of working-class city. You could come to New York, immigrants obviously from around the world, you could find a job, you could make a better life.
Joshua Freeman, Historian: Through the mid-1960s, New York was doing pretty well economically. It was both a financial center, it was a huge manufacturing center. You'd see blue-collar workers all over the place. You would see factories making garments, making electronic goods, you'd see people working unloading ships on the docks.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: New York was historically a city that did take care of people, where the subways were heavily subsidized, where you had great public schools, where you had this fantastic network of universities that were free.
And, by 1977, I mean all of this was, was just such a distant memory. The ambitions of the city had diminished so greatly and this, this notion that the city could take care of the people who lived in, in it was, was gone.
News Reporter (archival): Treasury Secretary Simon said today that the country is in a recession.
News Reporter (archival): For the first time since 1941, the nation's unemployment rate has gone above 9%.
News Reporter (archival): In New York City, the rate of unemployment is much higher than it is nationally, higher than at any time since the Great Depression.
Joshua Freeman, Historian: The 1970s was an economically troubled period for the whole United States and New York was particularly hard-hit by this general turn downward. New York hits a 12% unemployment rate in 1975. That's just a huge unemployment rate, and you can feel it all over, every place. It's visceral. People are hanging out on the streets, increase in petty crime. Ah, a sense of despair in a lot of areas, you know, of giving up.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: There was this sense that there were no jobs in New York. People were fleeing the city, moving to the suburbs if they could. Some of the middle class white families move out, what became known as white flight. There was just sort of a sense of desperation about New York at the time.
Newscaster (archival): The city will need more than God's help to get out of this mess. New York needs $500 million a month to keep its head above water.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: In 1975, New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy, and it needed a loan from Washington. And President Ford gave it some thought and came back to New York and said, "You're not gonna get a loan."
Joshua Freeman, Historian : After very dramatically turning down a city request, there was a retreat in Washington from that hard line. But they would only give New York City the money it needed to avoid bankruptcy if New York City adopted austerity measures. That meant cutting public services, laying off tens of thousands of workers, and other kinds of measures that assured them that they would get that money back.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: When those layoffs of police and firefighters came, you know, we were shocked. And that was sort of like, a little unwritten social contract that was broken by the city. Police went on strike. The fire went on strike. Sanitation went on strike.
Joshua Freeman, Historian : This big cut in public services at a time when the private economy is in very bad shape, it means hardship. It had immediate impact on New Yorkers and particularly on poor New Yorkers. People can't send the kids off the streets into the library. It's not there anymore. They can't send them to the after-school athletic program to keep them safe. It's not there anymore. So there's a lot of anger and also I think a sense of abandonment.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: Graffiti, crime, drugs, homeless people, squeegee people. People would put in their car windows "No radio," so people wouldn't break their windows. So it was, the city was going down.
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: When a population is neglected for so long, and then they keep cutting your social services, your education, your hospitals, your fire departments, it's going to boil, and, sooner or later, something is going to come out of that. And it wasn't going to be pretty.
Bill Moyers, Reporter (archival audio): This is the Bronx in New York. One and a half million people live in this borough. It's the home of the New York Yankees. It has also become the arson capital of the world. Once, that smoke on the horizon signified industry, progress, jobs. Now it means someone is burning down a building.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: We call those years the fire years when the city was burning down. When I came in the fire service, a busy fire company did 1,700 to 2,000 runs a year. In the 1970s, we were all doing 5,000 alarms a year. Smoking, carelessness, falling asleep with a cigarette, cooking fires and electrical fires. They were the three top causes.
But then there was arson, arson for profit, arson for revenge -- you wanted to get even to a neighbor. You had arson for fun -- a couple of kids with a can of gasoline could light a vacant building and have a ball watching firefighters come with big aerial ladders on a night, hot night and would watch us throw water into this building. You had fires for boredom.
Carl St. Martin, Medical Student: The block below me of the 60 houses, maybe only five of 'em hadn't had a fire. You knew that there's a chance that your house could catch on fire. So it caused that next person next door to move. Now that landlord didn't get his rent. This led to the temptation for some landlords to consider burning the building and collecting the insurance. And it became a domino effect.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: On top of all that, there was a serial killer on the loose in New York.
Reporter (archival audio): In New York, the search continues for the Son of Sam. The object of one of the biggest manhunts in this city's history.
Reporter (archival audio): The killer has taunted authorities by writing two letters, signed Son of Sam.
Joyce Purnick, Reporter: The NYPD was then, and still is, the preeminent police department in the country, and he was eluding the NYPD. Everybody was very tense. And it contributed to the sense of nobody was in control. It was becoming embarrassing to say you were a New Yorker after having been so many years when you were proud to be a New Yorker. The city was falling apart.
Chris "Doc" Vanager, Resident: By 10:00 -- that's when I started to hear the noises. And, first my mother goes, "What is that?" You heard these bumping noises. Just bump-bump-bump-bump outside. And so my mother opens the door and she looks. And I stick my head out, and the staircase door was open a little bit and you see a washing machine going up the stairs. Then after that a refrigerator comes upstairs. Then those giant furniture TV's, you know, the old Zeniths with the, the sound system in 'em and the record player, those started going up. And it was just box after box after box after box.
Carl St. Martin, Medical Student: It just happened. Like a tinderbox. It went from being lights to being looting.
Chris "Doc" Vanager, Resident: All I remember was people with stuff -- coats, clothes, like people just have this stuff draped over their arms like, "Yo, you wanna buy this? You wanna buy that?" They stole clothes, electronics, just everything you could think of.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: It happened within minutes in all of these neighborhoods. Every single borough in New York was affected by the looting. And it happens I mean just instantaneously.
Bruce Porter, Writer: Ace Pontiac stored 50 brand new Pontiacs in its garage and the, and the fire department had a rule that if you stored cars in, inside a building you had to leave the key in the ignition and you had to put $2 worth of gas in the tank. Well, all 50 of these cars vanished in the first hour and a half.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: There was people everywhere. Hundreds. Hundreds per block. We responded to a call for assistance from Wyckoff Heights Hospital. And the staff in the emergency room was being hard-pressed to keep up with the injuries because the looters were suffering such vicious cuts from the glass. There was blood everywhere. There was people with some hellacious injuries, and it really was starting to slide.
Carl St. Martin, Medical Student: I was in medical school, so, you know, I figured might as well just go and work at the hospital. It was packed. Full-blown -- people outside in the street waiting to get in. I went in, and there were some doctors there. And I explained that I was a medical student and he asked me had I sutured before. And I said, "Well, I'd done a little bit but not really." He said, "Okay, come, come. I'll show you. We need your help. We need your help." All night long, I was in a corner just closing up wounds.
Elzora Williamson, Shop Owner: We had our store, which was entitled Trophies By Syl. It was a sporting goods and trophy shop. We thought of it as more than a store. We taught the young people how to open a bank account, how to fill out the forms. My husband would go with them, show them how to do that. That evening, the lights went out as we were eating. And my husband said, "Oh maybe we better get back over there." And I said to him, "Oh let me do the dishes first." I probably lost about an hour.
When we got to maybe five, six blocks away from our store we started seeing our merchandise in the street. I just drove up on the sidewalk, and I parked the car directly where the doorway was. The people who were inside when they saw my husband, they said, "Here's Mr. Syl. Mr Syl is here," and they started running. It was sad in some ways because some people that you saw would be people you would not have expected to see in that capacity. And, and yet they were there.
Alan Rubin, Shop Owner: I figured, "Okay, I'll walk over to the store." And I saw a crowd on the side of the store. They were pushing and shoving to get into the store, and people were coming out carrying things. They got out hi-fi. They got out TVs. The store next to me, the owner came over to me, and he says, "I'm shooting in the air to scare them away." He said, "Do you need a gun?" And I said, "No way." I said, "I'll get hurt if I have a gun." I couldn't do anything about it, so I just was watching. And my knees started to shake.
Elzora Williamson, Shop Owner: We had to stay there all night because if we left they were gonna come in and take the rest. There was no police to stop them. Who, who would stop them from taking whatever else was there?
Bruce Porter, Writer: One problem with the police is they were told to report to the nearest precinct to them. Almost none of them live in the affected precincts in the poor neighborhoods. The major looting occurred when there were almost no policemen on the street.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: It took hours to get cops to the neighborhoods that needed them most. By the time they get there this thing is, this thing is on.
Bruce Porter, Writer: There were a lot of merchants and people who wanted police to come to their stores, stand there with their rifles in their hands and, and keep the people out. Well, the police didn't have anywhere near the manpower or police power to do that.
Man on the Street (archival audio): The whole Bronx is going, man. The whole Bronx is going.
Cop (archival): We'd like to sit here and watch it, but we can't.
Man on the Street (archival audio): No, that's alright.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: Our instructions were, "Do the best you can." And we did the best we could. We had sticks. We had our hands. You'd grab people and just toss them out. We were so outnumbered, we'd push them back as far as we could. The people would only respond so far. And then they would start hurling rocks and bottles at us. And then there was a pitched battle in the street. After a while there was, what can you do? It was insanity.
George Michael, Reporter (archival audio): It's 12:02 on WABC in New York. We switch now to Steve O'Brien.
Steve O'Brien, Reporter (archival audio): Thank you, George. Walking into one of the neighborhood establishments, we found still an atmosphere of extreme levity considering the situation. Anyway, people are feeling no pain in most of the establishments around the area.
Bruce Porter, Writer: The lights went out, and the beer came out, and we had candles and we had a block party. I didn't find out until the next day that there was any looting. Right, I mean, if you didn't live on a commercial street you didn't know the looting had happened.
Kevin Zraly, Wine Steward: We were on an island in the sky isolated from whatever else was happening in all of New York City.
We had these emergency lights, but it wasn't enough. I mean, so we started bringing candles in. In hindsight, I don't think that was a good idea because the candles also gave off heat. Air conditioning now has been out for, since 9:30. And but still people, some people we had to ask to leave. It was that kind of thing, you know. They liked the champagne part.
It sort of sounds like the Titanic when, when we talk about, "Did the band play on," you know? We had a three-piece combo of piano, bass, and guitar. The piano continued on.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: It's the city of rich and the city of the poor. And if you weren't in one of those neighborhoods, you know, if you were on the Upper East Side enjoying a candlelit dinner on your roof, you had no idea what was going on all around you.
Gus Engelman, Reporter WABC (archival audio): George, I just had a Con Ed spokesman on the phone to see if we can get a better idea of when Con Ed will be restoring that power. Here's Ed Livingston right now.
Ed Livingston, Con Ed Spokesman (archival audio): We can't, ah, we really can't estimate, Gus. We're working as hard as we can, ah, and as fast as we can, but I don't want to build up any hopes and pick a number of hours because we just can't be sure right now.
Jack Feinstein, Assistant Chief System Operator, Con Ed: We were moving in a step-by-step, very methodic, logical way of picking up the load. The generation was coming on slowly. I'm busy concentrating, and I turn around and there's the chairman of the board and the president of the company.
Charlie Durkin, Chief System Operator, Con Ed: They just wanted me to proceed with a sense of urgency, which we were. Each time we came to a point where we could pick up another network, it took about 15 minutes. That doesn't seem like a lot of time when you're talking one network. But when you have 50 networks, it's a lot of time.
Electricity is a kind of a keystone for civility, and if we can get the streetlights back on, the traffic lights working and all that kind of thing, there was a much better likelihood that the police and so forth can, can maintain control.
Bruce Porter, Writer: The first group, who went into the stores 10 minutes after the blackout occurred, these were a criminal element. Then the stores were open. And then another class of looters came in. People who did not have a criminal background, to whom it would not occur to go and smash the window of a store and go in and grab something. But they sat in their hot apartments seeing people run in and grab stuff and they said, “You know, I could really use some Pampers.”
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: I remember the rattling, and it's a very distinct rattling. A whole bunch of housewives had looted the supermarket at the corner where I used to live and what they had done is that they had taken pantyhose and they had tied shopping carts together so they could make a shopping cart train and then they had loaded all the stuff, all this merchandise, Pampers, toilet paper, food on these carts and were pushing them home.
Bruce Porter, Writer : These were the people who tended to get arrested. They had never been arrested before, and here they were arrested and charged with stealing a couch, or some clothes. There were not a package of Pampers survived the looting.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: Anybody and everybody -- children, women, men, people with jobs, people without jobs. They all got caught up in the moment. They didn't feel like they were committing a crime because the whole general atmosphere, the whole feeling of it, was, "Everybody's doing it, why not me?"
Police Officer (archival): ... hide your faces. Smiling, smile. They're hiding their faces.
Reporter (archival audio): Is this for looting?
Off camera voices (archival audio): Looting, looting.
Joshua Freeman, Historian: Looting is a complicated thing. People do it because they're greedy, because they need stuff. It's also sometimes fun. It's the people at the bottom being on the top for a moment, and they know it's only for a moment, but who's going to stop you? Who's going to stop you? No one can stop you. That can be a thrill.
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: It was the neighborhoods that had been neglected that rioted, and it was basically people who were poor and hungry. The media paints it as “Look at these criminals, it's race!” But it's not so much race as it is class. Black people didn't go after white people. Latinos did not go after the Italians. It was more about class. We didn't have, so we went, not even after those who had. We went after their stuff! It's an expression of anger. It's an expression of neglect, and it's an expression of need.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: If you don't control the crime problem and the people causing the disorder, it becomes a fire problem. The dispatcher ordered us to go from fire to fire. You were driving in the streets. People were waving to you for help, and you couldn't stop. Buildings were burning. Cars in the street were burning. Garbage in lots were burning. You know, you'd hear the dispatcher, "No companies available. No companies available." They would only send us to big store fires. You know, we would go to those big supermarket fires, appliance store fires, which were being broken into, looted, and burned.
Elzora Williamson, Resident: Not only did they loot the stores, they burnt them. And to me, that was the ultimate violation. You took everything, now why are you going to burn the store down as well?
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: Fire is a special effect. You light a car, you've got a spectacular event. Fire, you know, it's got noise. It's got smoke. It's got flame. It's got sound. It was a crazy scene, you know, it was something out of like a world war.
Reporter (archival audio): New York City in the early morning, after a night of no electric power and so no lights, elevators, subway trains or any trains, airports, air conditioning, traffic signals, television. What it did have in the dark streets was a wild outburst of crime, arson, looting, mugging, and a thousand false fire alarms.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: After the blackout everyone is trying to make sense of what has happened to New York. There was this sense that New York is not just in financial trouble, not just struggling. But there's something really existentially, foundationally wrong with New York, and New York is in real, real trouble.
Chris "Doc" Vanager, Resident: When we got up that next day, I got on my bike and rode around the neighborhood, and you just saw everything was gone. And that's when it kind of sunk in that nothing's gonna be the same. You know, nothing's ever gonna be the same. And you just go, "What are people supposed to do now?" You know?
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: It sort of felt like some bomb had gone off, but instead of destroying the buildings all you had a whole bunch of confetti and paper. And it was a very quiet city. I think that one of the reasons for this quietness was because a lot of frustration had been released and even if you yourself had not gone out there to loot, others had. Somehow, I think, that brings you some sort of catharsis.
Carl St. Martin, Medical Student: Once the sun was up the storeowners were now there. Many of them had roots in the neighborhood and were actually connected to the neighborhood. So they were hurt, and we were hurt.
Store Owner (archival): They got everything. I lost all my money. I work about 10 years for this. I lost everything. I don't have no insurance, no nothing. I have three kids, a wife. I lost everything.
Man on Street Interview (archival): You've got these people now, they are worried about their business as to whether they can start again in a community like this. As to whether they are gonna trust these people around here, I doubt it. The merchants, they are not going to trust these people after this. I wouldn't trust 'em.
Reporter (archival audio): So, yourself, what are you going to do now?
Store Owner (archival): Well, I'm going to leave this great big apple to those that want to stay here. I can't fight this anymore.
Alan Rubin, Shop Owner: Early the next morning I walk into the store. And the lights were still out, but there's enough light for me to see where I'm going. It was horrendous. It was a lot of work. There was gonna be no guarantee that we can make it. More to cut out all the questions, not any major statement, I just put a sign on the window that said, "We're staying."
Elzora Williamson, Resident: They had taken so much. We lost, um, I think it was something like $350,000 worth of merchandise. My whole thought was, "How am I gonna stay in business?"
My husband, he just sat down with people who looted the store, talked to them, told 'em he was disappointed. But he never reacted in such a way that would've been a negative on his part. Now that was something I could not do. I could not sit down and look a person in the eye and say, "It's okay." It was not okay. No matter how long we stayed, the store never really was what it had been all those years ago.
Chris "Doc" Vanager, Resident: My neighborhood stayed that way for probably 15 years. New Lots Avenue never opened back up ever again. Everybody that lived there, those mom-and-pop stores, they just shut down and they left.
Patrick Marshall, Police Officer: We got finished at about eight in the morning. I just, I sat on the hood of the car and looked down Broadway. I said, "I think the neighborhood's done. I think the back has finally been broken." And it was. I truly believe that that night took the carpet out from under the people.
Reporter (archival audio): What triggered the blackout? A federal report places the primary blame on Consolidated Edison, saying it was unprepared to deal with the crisis touched off by a severe thunderstorm.
Jack Feinstein, Assistant Chief System Operator, Con Ed: A blackout is almost similar to an airplane crash. It's never just one item. From the first lightning strike to the complete system shutdown, it's a series of events that if any one of 'em didn't occur, or was responded to differently, would've prevented the blackout.
News Reporter (archival audio): It was a night of terror that lasted for 25 hours. What happened to this blinded city? Three thousand one hundred seventy six people arrested, 132 policemen injured, 1,576 businesses looted or set on fire.
Jonathan Mahler, Writer: The blackout produced the largest mass arrest in the city's history. We're talking about thousands of people. And we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and stolen property.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: There were 1,000 major fires that night -- 1,000 major fires! I mean, that's mind-boggling. There's a social order that's necessary to live in these dense urban areas and that broke down that night.
Reporter (archival audio): In the worst slums of the city, the light of mindless violence lit up the sky as the blackout divided the town into two societies: separate and unequal.
Joshua Freeman, Historian: The blackout gave you an appreciation of the fragility of urban life. You flip a switch and darkness turns to light, you know? And you just totally take all this stuff for granted. And an event like that makes you realize how contingent, how fragile all that is.
Ernesto Quiñonez, Resident: You can't hit your mom because she's your mom, so you hit your little brother. Something like that is what was happening. You couldn't go after these politicians that were killing your neighborhood, so you went after your little brother. You went after each other.
Vincent Dunn, Firefighter: If you wanted to say, "When was the bottom of the decaying, declining New York City," you would have to say 1977, the blackout. We've had some very good prosperous times in New York City since then. But this is always there as an example of what could happen.