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The Great Blackout of 2003 - Thursday 14 August 2003

the largest power cut in North American History

Article | Pictures

Blackout 2003 photos


Wow, that's all I can say. 50 million people (in 23,310.000 sq km) without electricity along the East Coast of Canada and the US - Most of Ontario, and a lot of Northeastern US. It was nuts. So... this is where I was.


We were having a company cruise on that day, and we were on a boat at the time it happened. When we got back on shore, the captain said:


"Thank you for travelling with us... by the way, the power is out in all of Toronto, so the subway's been shut down. Have a nice day!"


Gasps from everyone on the boat. I don't know whether or not it was because the power was out, or that the captain was able to say that so cheerfully.


So we get off the boat, and I start trekking back to the office to get my stuff (stupid me, I forgot to take my stuff from the office when I went on the cruise). Power had been out for a while, since 4:13. Trekking back up Yonge St., I had never seen that many people out on the streets of downtown Toronto at once. It was kind of awe inspiring, and I thought it was a really nice situation: people, still in their suits and work clothes hopped into intersections all over downtown and were directing traffic, and it was very nice that nobody was pushing, shoving, panicking, or being rude. Everyone was working together and cooperating.


Everyone was very patient and mellow about the entire situation. Cars everywhere, streetcars stopped in the middle of the street, people emerging from subway stations... and yet, nobody was screaming obscenities (except for the pseudo-cops on Front and Bay, who were getting increasingly agitated since nobody was really caring about what they say. I almost witnessed a car slam into a person, if it wasn't for the pseudo-cop yelling "What the f**k are you doing?! Get back on the freaking sidewalk!" To which the person listened to in the nick of time.


So at 4:30, I get off the boat, and make te trek back up Yonge St. from Queen's Quay to Queen, where I work. I get back there at about 5:15pm (usually only takes me 17 mins to get that far). ONE elevator was working, thankfully, but we still had to trek up a few floors to get to the floor I was working on, since the door wasn't open there.


Wow, the office was completely dark. Odd. The phones in the office, running on a PBX, wasn't running anymore. Cell phone service was very spotty, and it took me over 30 minutes to get a call through back home. I went back down to Eaton Centre to contemplate how I'd get home (it's now 5:30, too late for me to get down to the GO train station for the 5:30 train). I decide to take the 6:40 train back up to Richmond Hill, since the subway wasn't working and Yonge St. buses were crammed beyond capacity, with lineups stretching whole streets. Eaton Centre, across the street from where I work, was dim.


Meanwhile, I go around with my camera (which I had brought with me for the cruise) and started snapping pictures of absloutely everything, while slowly making my way down to Front St., weaving my way from Yonge to Bay and back again. All the while, I'm picking up bits and pieces of information from people on the street. One person with a radio on a street corner declares "Hey everyone, guess what the Americans think? Terrorism." Everyone on the corner laughs.


At 6:25, I make my way down to Union Station, where I'm told that all trains have been stopped because of signalling and switching problems. Great. How am I to get home now? I then go to the bus station, where I'm told that no buses are going up to Richmond Hill.


I spend about 20 minutes talking to a British family on holiday here at Front and Bay. "It's not every day you see something like this, I suppose!" the father quips, "We're just down here to catch the sights and scenes." "Well, I'm actually quite impressed, really, since in the UK, they would just say 'Oh, there's a power cut' and go on their way," says the daughter.


After talking, I make my way up Bay to across Commerece Court, (the RBC building) where I line up for 40 minutes or so for a hot dog. I also buy a bottle of water for the pseudo cop on Bay and Wellington and throw it to him -- he's been at it for at least as long as I've been standing in line.


So I eat my hot dogs outside Commerece Court, talking with a person also sitting there. A couple of Chinese people come and ask me for my phone, to which I reply that I can speak Mandarin, albeit not very well (I explained I was from Hong Kong). They are absolutely relieved and manage to get through who they need to get to (it's now about 7:30, getting to 8pm). They pay me $2 for my phone, which surprised even me since I still have minutes left and I told them it was free.


Now, I make my way back down to the GO station to try my luck with the GO buses. The sun is now quite low in the sky and getting dark. The lineup stretches a long way. An attendant shouts through his megaphone that there is a train for Lakeshore East departing shortly, and everyone rushes for the train station.


At this time, Mom calls me, and asks where I am. I calmly say I'm in downtown, to which my not-so-calm Mom replied "WHY?! Why didn't you try to make your way back as soon as you could?? Isn't it dark? It's dangerous!"


Well, no buses or trains were running to Richmond Hill until very recently, and buses were crammed and bursting at their seams. Only on New Year's Eve in HK have I seen such cramming. Even at this time, buses were still crammed and lineups stretched an entire block.


After waiting for 30 minutes or so for a bus, one finally comes heading for Richmond Hill. I board the bus at 8:32pm (it says so on my pass... this is going to be a souvenir from the event). I was getting on the bus at the same time as people who'd been lining up for well over an hour.


The highway lights were all out, and the Toronto skyline was a black silhouette against the setting sun. Wow. Only the Bell Canada building had full electricity, presumably running on generators.


At about 9:50, I'm back up in Richmond Hill, where I'm picked up by my aunt and we go off to a barbeque at one of their friends' place. It was very very cozy and nice there, eating by candlelight, and flashlight.


I have never seen stars this well, and with the entire East Coast blacked out, you could see the Milky Way and all the constellations. The moon was bright and high up in the sky, giving us light but without obscuring the stars. It was absolutely amazing, and I wouldn't have missed this for the world. Everything around was silent, except for the crickets and wind, and everything was absolutely calm.


We went back home after midnight, and, lacking flashlights, I was using the white LEDs on my phone as illumination. It was amazingly bright, and I found my way using that and the moonlight coming in through the window. It was weird though. As I went into my room, I instinctively flicked on the light switch, before realizing that the power was out. It shows how absolutely dependent we are on technology. I mean, we're carrying it in our pockets, and it's so integrated into our lives we take it for granted.


15 August, 3am: The alarm suddenly blares away, and I don't know what's been going on. The power is back on at our place, probably thanks to the fact that we are near York Central Hospital. We quickly reset the alarm, and go back to sleep.


Gas stations are running out of gas, and it takes over an hour to get gas. It's probably because there are few stations open, and a little bit of panicking going on.


From pseudo-cops on the streets to cellphone sharing, to people giving water out on the street to thirsty people (I gave one bottle, but I saw someone put down a box for another bunch of pseudo-cops). Even the homeless weren't spared the generosity, as I saw some homeless people have burgers in their hands. Surprisingly, few people were looting in Toronto, although I hear worse things happening in Ottawa.


Well, that's my experience from the blackout so far. I was surprisingly at ease and calm about the entire situation, which surprises even myself when I look back at it. It does show you how well people can handle a crisis when it's suddenly put upon you.


As of 16 August at 13:00, there are still rolling blackouts in effect, and the power went out at 2pm or so in the 15th as a result of the rolling blackouts. Ontario is in a state of emergency, so all non-essential workers are to remain home.


So, I got an unexpected long weekend. What more could I ask for?


Blackout 2003 photos


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