Blackout 2003: One EMTs 27 hours in the dark

Blackout 2003: One EMTs 27 hours in the dark

At my day job I am a System Engineer for a large publishing company. My boss Tony and I were sitting in a meeting at 4:15p.m. when the lights went out. We looked out the window to see if it was just us, and noticed that it looked a little dark at Chase next door. Then we noticed flashing emergency lights flashing on some of the floors across the street. I turned on my ambulance radio to see if I could figure out what was going on. It was silent which is not normal. Then I heard my mid-town ambulance trying to reach anyone on the air. I realized the blackout was at least from 50th -> 47th street because the mid-town bus sits on 47th and 5th Avenue. 6 minutes later the dispatcher came back on the air. H-Base, the radio ID of our dispatcher, started asking units to respond to buses in all neighborhoods from down in Manhattan all the way up to the catskills. I knew it was -very- bad.

I half thought that Indian Point or some other nuclear plant blew, and an EMP disrupted the power. All sorts of horrible thoughts ran through my head. I was kind of freaked. I had some flashbacks to 9/11. I just could not stay in the office. I needed to get outside to the street. I felt like I was in a very very small box and I was in danger being inside. It’s hard to explain, but I think I have some idea what soldiers that come home from a war feel when they say they have flashbacks. It’s really scary when you feel like you are back in a dangerous place, and you aren’t sure what to do, but you know you need to not be where you are. Tony and I went to our dark cave of an office.

With no windows in our office we had to use laptops to light the way. I just held up my laptop in front of me and the screen lit the way. We each threw laptops in our bags to use if we needed them when the power came back, and then we went to my car a block away on 50th and Broadway. There were people everywhere. It was just like back on 9/11 as far as people in the streets, and lots of confusion. It was a wild sight seeing all the traffic lights in mid-town dark. We drove with my lights and sirens in my car up to 85th and Lexington where the ambulances for my neighborhood usually are parked. Tony and I drove to the 19th Precinct on 67th and Lexington in one of the ambulances with a bunch of EMTs. One ambulance stayed behind on 85th and Lexinton because our Synagogue is there so it was likely that someone needing help might go there. Most of us went down to 67th street though because that was going to be our main base of operations. From 67th street we took calls from my ambulance company and 911 calls because 911 was down from 4:15p.m. until about 6:15p.m.

Right before the 911 system came back up I assisted FDNY in getting some people out of an elevator at the 63rd and Lexington subway station. One person needed medical treatment so we took them to a local hospital, but everyone else was able to go although they had nowhere to go because none of them lived in Manhattan. Most of them were going to try to walk home to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. After leaving Lenox Hill we went back to the 19th Precinct where I dispatched for the Upper East Side and relayed messages to the Upper West Side dispatcher because they were too far from the tower to hear H-Base. (Our main dispatcher.) We took calls through the evening. Tony got lucky. One of the EMTs on my ambulance was driving home to Long Island so Tony was able to catch a ride with him to get home to his wife and two kids.

By around 8pm or so we got nervous because our ambulances only had half a tank of fuel and our explorers also were low. We found the firehouse on 103rd and 3rd Avenue had Diesel gas and they had a generator that was still working. To pump gas you need electricity. There was nowhere with gas and electricity in the whole city. We found that Metropolitan Hospital on 97th between 1st and 2nd avenue had regular gas on a pump that was on the generator. They let us pump from them to fill our explorers up. There is no amount of thanks that I could give Metropolitan Hospital and the firefighters of the 103rd street firehouse that would be enough to thank them for keeping our ambulances in operation. Both of them needed the gas for their own vehicles so by giving gas to us they risked their own rigs not having gas, but they still helped us out. Kindness is not something you think about often when you think about New York City.

With full tanks of gas we were able to run the engines on the ambulances full-time without worrying that we’d run out of fuel. We were turning them off and running the radios off of the battery to save gas, but that was dangerous because if the battery got too low then the ambulance wouldn’t start up again and we’d have to jump-start it. We had a few calls during the evening. The worst call I heard was a double stabbing in Brooklyn. Aside from that there wasn’t any violence that I heard on the radios at all. Our operation was extremely coordinated and well done. It wasn’t anywhere near the chaos of 9/11. H-Base would give a call to a regional base over one radio channel and that regional base would dispatch resources to handle the job using a secondary radio channel. It worked without a hitch. In some ways I felt like dispatching was going smoother than when a normal night when there is electricity, but that’s because instead of one dispatcher there was maybe 10 dispatchers taking car of managing calls, and each regional dispatcher knew their neighborhood because they lived there.

At around midnight things got quiet. From about 3am until 5:30 when the sun started coming up I drove around the city just seeing what was doing. At Bryant Park on 42nd and 6th Avenue I saw people sleeping all over the park. Some people pushed chairs together to make a bed for themselves. Others were sleeping on the grass. I saw two people having sex even. (I really didn’t need to see that though.) In Times Square I saw that NYPD had setup ESU trucks with bright lights up so it was pretty well lit up there. People were all over the sidewalks sleeping or talking. The side streets around the Empire State Building were completely shut down, and there were two NYPD cars on the avenue which was unusual because I didn’t see any NYPD camped out at any other locations aside from Times Square. I assume maybe because the city was afraid of terrorism during the blackout maybe? Anyway I saw lots of stuff on the overnight. I saw Mr. Softee ice cream trucks around the city. I thought that was a really smart idea of them to come in to NYC. I saw business men wearing suits sleeping on park benches in Central Park. I saw the United Nations in total darkness. People were all over the sidewalks in front of Grand Central Station on 42nd Street. Some buildings in mid-town seemed to have good generators because through the whole thing I saw some buildings comepletely lit up, but it was only a handful of buildings. I wished my apartment building had a generator. It was completely dark at my building. My doorman was camped out on a lawn chair in front of the building with candles lighting up the lobby. I gave him and the maintenance guys whatever snacks I had in my apartment.

Morning came and the lights were still out on the Upper East Side. At 9:00a.m. I decided to venture in to mid-town to see if the lights were on at the office. I heard rumors that lights were on there, but I had not seen any lights on since 4:15pm on Thursday. Sure enough there was some power in mid-town. I went to a friend’s office on 50th and 6th avenue. We found everything on. Thankfully the plumbing was working so I was able to use a functional bathroom for the first time in 24 hours. You really can’t imagine how bad it was to not find working bathrooms all night. At Lenox Hill Hospital there was working plumbing but there were no lights in the bathroom. Just when I was going to head over to my office a block away there was an ambulance call in mid-town on 38th street. So my friend and I responded in our cars (with lights and sirens) down there. We found that part of the city was still without power so apparently not all of mid-town was back up on the grid. We couldn’t find the patient so we left the call as unfounded. I headed back to 85th and Lex where we had been stationed for much of the night.

Some time later we had the hardest call of the night. We helped carry a woman that was pregnant with triplets down from the 17th floor to the lobby because we was unable to walk the 17 flights so she was trapped in the apartment. I was just dead tired after that. It was like noon, and the power wasn’t on yet on the Upper East Side. I had been working on the ambulance for 20 hours now without sleep. I hadn’t had a meal in 24 hours and I had been awake for 29 hours. I was hungry and tired and just wanted to crawl in to bed and turn the air conditioner on. My last stop before going home at 4pm (24 hours after the blackout began) was to go to my butcher, Park East, on 84th and 2nd Avenue. I had heard rumors that at 4am they had come to work and cooked all the meat before it thawed so they could sell it and it woldn’t go bad. They were extremely nice. I had no money because no ATMs were working so they let me give them my credit card number so I could buy food so I could eat over the weekend. Even at 5pm there was no power on the Upper East Side. I didn’t know if I needed food for Friday night or for the weekend. My butcher had some steaks that had not even thawed yet so I treated myself to steaks, and cooked chicken, chulent, potato kugel, barley, and green bean salad. I went home and cooked up the steaks on my gas stove (thank g-d they didn’t update my kitchen to have an electric one.) I had my steaks and then plopped in to my bed.

I woke up to my phone ringing. I had plugged in an old phone that didn’t need power before going to sleep so I would hear the phone if there was an ambulance call. My father got me on the phone at around 7:30p.m. … right before shabbos was starting… and it seemed the power was back on. I had no clue because I had all my circuit breakers off so I wouldn’t hurt my computer equipment when the power came on. I quickly ran to the breaker box. I turned everything on… closed the windows… stood in front of the air conditioner for 5 minutes.. and then used my nice comfortable bathroom for the first time since the morning before. It was off to bed after that because I didn’t know when the next ambulance call would come, and I needed to be rested because I felt really sick from being up so long, and not eating or drinking right.

Saturday came and here it is. The power is still on. I’m still here. NYC appears to have survived. I really could use a nap.