10 years ago today, 50 million people were without electricity in the largest blackout in North American history. I was working at my desk on the 35th floor of downtown office building…
On Thursday, August 14, 2003, just before 4:11 p.m., I was getting ready to leave work. The first train home would leave at 4:30. Since I didn’t work on Fridays, and I had the following week off, I decided to transcribe one more little voicemail before I caught the train…that was a mistake. I waited around the office, like so many others, waiting to see if the hydro would be restored. The air in the building warmed up quickly, the toilets were clogged, and we were all in the dark about what was happening (pun intended). Eventually we received an announcement from the building manager simply stating that we were to exit the building. The lawyers I worked for didn’t bother to see if there were any “damsels in distress” and had already cleared out. So Dar and I, the new girl sitting behind me who was also new to the city, grabbed a bottle of water from the conference room, and made the long trek down 35 flights of stairs.
By the time we reached the bottom of the stiflingly hot and cramped staircase, our legs felt like jell-o (and not the yummy chocolate kind). After a short rest, we walked several city blocks to the main train station. Inside was bedlam. No trains were running, no phones were working, and hundreds of people were stranded. I left Hubby a voicemail message that he wouldn’t get until the next day.
Dar and I headed further south on foot to see if we could catch a bus at the beginning of the route, but the waiting crowds were massive. Every bus that passed was filled to maxi! People were shouting and angry; there was a hint of panic in the air, so we decided to start walking north. “Home” was a 40 minute train ride – we would be walking a long time.
The streetlights were out and the roads and intersections jammed with cars and buses. People crossed the street wherever they wanted, and some Good Samaritans tried to restore some semblance of order by directing traffic. All the stores along the way were closed so we had no hope of food, water, or shelter. I was thankful I wasn’t stuck in a subway train stopped mid-tunnel. Gas stations pumps weren’t working, so white-knuckled drivers were anxious to get home before they ran out of gas.
I lost count of the number of blocks we walked in the hot, humid evening. The temperature was in the upper 20s, and the humidity made it feel more like the mid-30s. I was wearing a sundress and sandals and carried my purse, a sweater, and one bottle of water.
As we neared another busy intersection, it dawned on me that Hubby’s friend, D. lived nearby. We found a phone booth and looked up the address and phone number, but the phones still weren’t working. We headed down a side street and found his building, but the guy at the desk couldn’t tell me his apartment number. He could only look it up on a computer…In a last effort, I tried calling him from a payphone in the lobby. He was home and answered, because D. had plugged in an old rotary phone. Unfortunately, D. lived on the 8th floor…it was a long climb up those stairs and I was exhausted by the time we reached his apartment. D. didn’t have much food, being accustomed to picking up supper on his way home from work, but we were safely off the street. We sat and chatted as the sun set in the western sky, and I finally got in touch with Hubby to let him know where I was. He wasn’t worried, which seemed strange to me considering I was a small town girl literally wandering the downtown streets as the sun set…But then I wasn’t the only one!
By 8:00 p.m., Dar decided she wanted to see if she could catch a bus home, so we all packed up and headed down 8 flights of stairs and walked back over to the main street. The sidewalks were clogged with people who were stuck downtown, or who were simply trying to escape the heat in their dark apartments. The crowds were still thick around the bus stops, and every bus that passed was jammed. I was too tired to feel hungry or thirsty, and I starting to get woozy and overwhelmed in the crush of people. Cars were stopping near the corners asking if anyone needed a ride to [insert street name or area here], and before I could stop her, Dar. had darted forward and into a stranger’s car. D. wrote down the license plate number and we walked in the dark back to his apartment. I almost grabbed his hand once when a man ducked out from an alley and asked for money. I had left my purse at the apartment so I didn’t have any. I didn’t have any identification either. It was a long, painful climb up those 8 flights of stairs…again…
Meanwhile, Hubby had made it home from work in the car. My mother was visiting and I was to head to her place with her in the morning. Hubby and my Mom enjoyed a “romantic” candlelit BBQ steak dinner for supper, then visited with neighbours before heading to bed early. Hubby was supposed to pick Big Guy up at a friend’s house…Big Guy got to have a sleepover instead!
Back at D’s place, talked in the dark until we got tired. He loaned me a t-shirt and I tried to get some sleep on his pullout couch. The power flipped on long enough to fill the bathtub and flush the toilet. The university building across the road had a generator so light spilled in from its empty classrooms and kept me awake most of the night, as did the voices yelling on the street and the sirens that sang all night. It was a very long, sticky night. I was up and dressed in my rancid clothes before the sun rose. Hubby made the trip downtown early in the morning to get me, even though the power was still out (8 flights down again), and then we picked up Big Guy. I was so happy to get back to my own house and have a shower (minus the shower head because it fell off when I turned the water on…) Of course, that required climbing one flight of stairs and my legs weren’t too happy about that…
I’m very thankful that I didn’t sleep in a stairwell or get trapped in a train. And while it wasn’t a world-changing event that brought on discussions like “where were you when you heard John F. Kennedy had been shot?”, there were quite a few years when we shared our stories of where we were when the lights went off.