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Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

In 1977, New York blackout was scary but exciting too

Twenty-six years ago, when the Big Blackout hit New York City, no one thought that it could be the trickery of terrorists. Those of us who were visiting the Big Apple on July 13, 1977, along with the thousands of New Yorkers held captive without lights, were more curious than we were frightened.

I was in New York to cover the Grocery Manufacturers Association show and convention for The Blade and was getting dressed in my hotel room to attend the opening gala when the lights suddenly went out, leaving me stranded in the bathroom with hair rollers and no makeup. Though it was early evening, it was pitch black in the small room at the Salisbury Hotel, and just as dark when I made my way to the window to look out over 57th Street. So it isn't just the hotel that doesn't have power, I remember thinking. I have to get out of this room and into the streets of New York. It looks exciting.

Thankfully, the telephones were working. No, not cell phones. They weren't on the communications scene yet. The friend I was with to attend the gala called and volunteered to walk from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he was staying, and bring me a candle.

Elevators and escalators are fueled by electricity. It was take the stairway or stay in your room and miss the fun of New York in darkness.

Between us we had one candle to light our way down the 15 flights of stairs and into the dark city swarming with people and stranded drivers blowing their car horns in desperation.

I can't imagine anything darker than a hotel hallway without lights. Still, people with and without candles were venturing down, step-by-step, counting off the floor numbers, and seemed more in good humor than they were fearful. More than once we were offered up to $10 for our candle. In 1977 that was a good price.

Though yesterday's extensive power outage rekindled blackout memories, I have thought about the unusual experience many times through the years. When an elevator is out of order for repairs and I have to walk, it all comes back to me. When I find a candle in a hotel nightstand drawer it is appreciated. For several years I kept a candle in my suitcase, just in case.

The Salisbury doorman, standing at attention as if business was as usual, was awed by the loss of lights. When he was asked for his thoughts, he said, “I have never seen the moon over downtown New York before.” To him it was a beautiful sight.

A solid mass of people promenaded through the streets and on sidewalks, but thousands were trapped in subway trains. By the light of the same candle that had brought us down the hotel stairs, we made our way up the stalled escalator stairs to the floor in the Pan Am Building where the party was held.

It had not been cancelled and in fact it was going strong. The place was packed with guests drinking, eating, and having a wonderful time as a band played. It was apparent that the New Yorkers at the party and at other places we passed were glad they had a night off from taking a long ride home to the suburbs.

At the Waldorf, where it was rumored you could get a bite to eat, the effect of the blackout was visible as the night wore on past midnight. The lobby of the five-star hotel had taken in people who were willing to sleep on the floor.

I kept telling my friend I wanted to get a story. This is big national news, I was sure. I am not sure what time I felt my way back up the 15 flights of stairs to my room without a candle. I do know that when I woke up, the lights were on. I raced to Western Union to send my story back to Toledo. What a difference 26 years have made.

Had I been in New York City Thursday, I am sure I would have feared terrorism. Today I could transmit the story in seconds electronically by computer in my room and not have to track down a Western Union.

On the other hand, could I even get the story? The weight and legs aren't what they used to be when it comes to climbing stairs.



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