Were You When The Lights Went Out?
of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing on Aug. 15,
43-year-old construction worker George Stackpoll was in a state of panic.
But it wasn’t the blackout that was worrying him.
don’t have power, so I can’t make coffee. I came here, and they can’t
make coffee. I mean, I don’t care about looting. That doesn’t scare me.
But no coffee? That scares me,” the Kew Gardens resident admitted to the
after Stackpoll expressed his worries, the Dunkin’ Donuts opened up with
plenty of coffee, but no donuts. “We couldn’t make them,” one employee
said. “All night nothing worked. But we were able to make coffee this
laughed as he ordered his French Vanilla with half and half and two sugars,
and said, “Thank God. I swear, I don’t know what I would have done.”
was the worst blackout in the history of North America, and on the pages
that follow are just a few snapshots of how Queens spent its moment in the
Can’t Get There From Here
Thursday, Aug. 14, 6 p.m.; the intersection of Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone —
blare, tempers erupt. A man leaves his car to yell at drivers turning onto
Yellowstone, blocking all center lanes going either direction.
the heart of this Forest Hills intersection, cars point in all directions
like needles sucked onto a magnet. Windows rolled down, people shout demands
laced with obscenities.
MacDonald Park, the benches are packed with people waiting for a bus.
As waves of pedestrians trudge east along the boulevard, a woman standing near the red and blue sign begins shouting, “All the buses are full. All the cabs are full. This is f—king nuts!”
occasional cab stops, reducing the bus stop crowd one or two at a time.
half hour has passed. Two middle-aged Jamaica residents sit on a park bench
discussing the day’s events. Maria Leiva and Doreen Guevara say they have
been waiting for a bus for two hours since the power went out, but all the
buses have been full.
was eating dinner at Wendy’s when it got dark all of a sudden. She came to
Forest Hills to pay her cell phone bill. But now, she says, her cell phone
“sometimes works, sometimes don’t.”
think it’s terrorism,” Leiva continued. At first, she said she was not
scared when the power went out. After a moment, she admits she was a little
Guevara, saying she heard about looting during a blackout years ago, adds, “I would like to get home before dark.”
11 p.m. and pitch dark at MacDonald Park. Leiva and Guevara left long ago.
twenty people, mostly neighborhood residents, are out of their stuffy
apartments, hanging out.
young man and woman sit and talk together at the end of one forest green
woman, Christine Zielinski, walked back to her home in Forest Hills from
Queens College in Flushing. It was administration day and students were
registering for classes and buying books.
man, Jay Shah, a consultant working out of the Rockefeller Center in
Manhattan, took a cab to Queensborough Bridge, but the driver refused to
take him into Queens. He had no choice but to walk across the bridge and all
the way back to Forest Hills.
much everyone thought it was a terrorist attack at first,” Shah said.
said the exodus out of the city reminded him of September 11, 2001. On that
tragic day, Shah was on his way to his office in the World Trade Center when
a half hour after the blackout, employees at his office started going home.
“I don’t think anybody knew how they were getting home. They just
More River To Cross . . . Again
Traveling by foot, it was nearly 5:30 p.m. when the clogged roads approaching the Queensborough Bridge gave way to the human sea of workday refugees streaming off the bridge and into Queens Plaza, where the monolithic line of people splintered in all directions.
a few scattered journalists clutching cameras and note pads, as well as the
occasional person calling for a lost friend, wandered against the stream of
people walking home from Manhattan.
faces in the crowd, though wet with sweat, betrayed few traces of fear or
paranoia though in the midst of a major event affecting eight states, two
nations and millions of people.
know, at first I thought if
this isn’t terrorism, I don’t know what is then,” said one woman to
friends as she walked. The
massive spectacle on the bridge drew easy analogy to Sept. 11th, but this
was only a mundane mechanical failure.
so the scene on the Queensborough Bridge, in short, was pretty fun.
Jacob Lipschultz, a Long Islander sweating heavily in a business suit, paused to wait on queue for a Mister Softee truck, which was doing brisk business along with the few nearby pizzerias and bodegas that had set up drink vending tables outside. “I don’t know how I’m getting home, but for now I’ll be fine with some ice cream,” he said.
groups formed around every bus stop and jostled for entry onto increasingly
rare Queens Surface buses.
truck carrying a load of teenagers waded gently through the pedestrians on
the bridge as the happy passengers waved and whistled at the walkers below.
The only people on the bridge showing overt signs of distress were
the dozens of young police cadets who rushed out to keep open a lane for the
few cars and buses that managed to make it to the bridge.
few cars that did make it to bridge did so in direct violation of
23-year-old Greg Barlow from Fresh Meadows, the man who tried to bring order
to the intersection of 58th Street and Lexington Avenue on the approach to
the Queensborough Bridge.
came to the intersection at around 5:30 p.m. to find it in shambles. “The
cars were completely jumbled, it looked like a car crash,” he later told
the Tribune. Only 90-minutes
after the power outage, Barlow was already the veteran of one previous
intersection farther uptown, where he had been relieved by a police officer.
proximity to the Queensborough Bridge, and the urgency with which motorists
wished to cross it, created a difficult situation for Barlow.
“The cross-town street just wasn’t moving at all really.
Maybe three cars could get by every ten minutes or so,” he
explained. “Instead of
blocking the cross-town street, I tried to get people to drive downtown.”
said, “Most people were very appreciative.
A few people rolled down the window to say thanks as they drove
by.” But he also noted the
flimsiness of his newfound authority: “The
only people who listened to me were the ones who wanted to,” and several
cars continued on towards the ramp to the bridge.
cars actually weren’t as difficult as the people, according to Barlow.
“You know in New York, pedestrians always assume they have the
right of way. But the crowd was
so huge, it was completely blocking everything,” said Barlow.
added, “So I not only had to be a stop light, but a walk/don’t walk
the end, another would-be Samaritan joined Barlow in directing traffic,
which made matters worse because their instructions often conflicted.
As a result, Greg Barlow deferred to the newcomer and made his own
way over the East River, hoping to reach home before total dark took the
city for the first time in nearly three decades.
27-year-old Bayside resident Marc Fulner walked home from work in the dark
on Aug. 14, he couldn’t help but feel “a little freaked out.”
The Manhattan banker said, “I had to walk over the Queensborough Bridge to get back home today. I tried waiting for a bus, that was impossible. The subways weren’t running, of course. So I had to walk and carpool home. Last time I did that, the situation was a little different.”
was of course referring to the long walk he took over the Queensborough
Bridge on Sept. 11, 2001 – a walk he hoped never to take again. He said,
“I barely remember walking over the bridge that day. I was on another
planet, just really afraid and worried.” He added, “I had just gotten
married and I had no clue where my wife was. She worked a block from the
found his wife that day, but said, “It was such a hard walk to take. I
couldn’t wait to get there. Now today, I’m minding my own business,
typing at my computer, and bang, the lights go out. I have to walk again. It
said it took him five hours to get back to Bayside, and after arriving at
about 9:30 p.m., he said, “This time, the walk was just inconvenient. I
wasn’t scared or anything, just kind of annoyed.”
Peccaree of Bayside agreed, and called the situation, “a cheerful version
of Sept. 11.” He said he also walked over the Queensborough Bridge to get
home during the blackout, adding, “It brought back some pretty terrible
memories. I remember last time I made that walk, I didn’t know where my
wife was or if the bridge would collapse under me. This time, I got an ice
cream, I relaxed. I wasn’t scared.”
Beacon Of Light
most of the city was blackened by a massive power failure on Aug. 14, the
illuminated Citicorp building stood in stark contrast to the Queens skyline.
Motorists in standstill traffic on Skillman Avenue sat facing the glowing
building, one of the last left in the city.
the revolving glass doors of the white marbled lobby, security guards with
black ties sat idly by. The
greeting from security guard Henderson Feliz, sitting in front of the
elevator entrance: “Welcome
to Hotel California.”
Feliz smiled, and nodded in the direction of a long black leather designer couch where three well-dressed people were asleep.
stranded in the Citicorp Building had to walk down stairways illuminated by
at Queens tallest building “helped each other,” said a security guard.
weren’t very happy,” the guard said. “Just in a hurry to get to the
street.” And once they got there, they had no where to go, with subways
stalled. Some opted for buses and some walked to their homes in eastern
Queens, the guard said.
arrived at the site about 40 minutes into the blackout, workers said. “The
sight of the rescue teams was welcome, but really late,” the guard said.
residents pitched in to help the exhausted workers when they reached the
street, and wondered if the response would have been faster if the City had
not closed the local firehouse.
Azi Paybarah & Liz Goff
Curtis Hailey was on his Lefrak City terrace when the 4:11 p.m. blackout
struck. From inside the
corridors of the unlit halls, Hailey said, “I heard people screaming,
13-year-old sister Nivea said kids at first welcomed the blackout, until
later that night. “People
were playing games because it’s light outside,” Nivea said. “They were
teenagers.” Nivea, who said she wasn’t scared, added, “Nobody’s
playing now, it’s dark outside now.”
previous nights behind locked doors with lights glowing, another Lefrak
resident said, “I think it’s safer outside.”
Toledo, a 26-year-old former Marine looked at the widening crowd
bottlenecking outside the supermarket, and added, “I just hope people
don’t start acting stupid…that’s all it takes, one person to act
Still At The Mall
Rush hour commuting often pits one weary traveler against another. On Aug. 14, many found themselves trying to trek across the city with no electricity as sun slowly set below the skyline.
buses, trains, gypsie cabs and taxis that weave a transportation web around
Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst became a tangled knot of stranded commuters
and stalled motorists.
men in their late sixties, Leon and Stewart, stood meekishly on the curb in
front of the mall as others travelers spilled further into the empty Queens
Boulevard. Stew, who just
turned down a free ride from a young man in a red town car, said, “He
offered us a ride, but not to Manhattan.
Who knows where he would have taken us.”
Stradler scooped as many people into his Greenline bus as would fit.
Hushing restless passengers as he spoke to the Tribune, Stradler said
he was not in radio communication with his company, but said it was a matter
of common sense to stick to his route and not charge fares.
Place To Go
across the borough by moonlight was a journey between gas station oases
devoid of gas.
the sun set on the Blackout of 2003, driving was disconcerting at first.
Headlights were enough to see the road ahead of you, but many intersections
were too small to have someone directing traffic, and rolling up to a
blackened traffic light was unnerving at first. But the longer you drove,
the more comfortable it became.
intermittently, there would be a darkened gas station. One manager waved his
hand at the night air and said all stations in the city needed electricity
to pump. That wasn’t confirmed, but it was the case at all the usual gas
stops along the length of the Long Island Expressway in Queens.
some stations, drivers had pulled up and parked at the pumps – partly
hoping the power would return, partly recognizing they couldn’t make it
home. And clusters of drivers gathered at convenience store entrances
pointing at the traffic, chatting with the workers, and guessing when the
pumps would start again.
next morning, when power was restored to much of the borough, the lines
outside local gas stations were “just ridiculous,” according to Flushing
resident Myra Chen. “I was almost out of gas the other day. I figured
I’d get it later. Then the lights went out. I need gas, but I have to wait
on line behind psychos who are trying to fill up their tanks for a year or
was cut in line three times at the Mobil Station on Kissena Boulevard and
the Long Island Expressway, and she said, “These people are nuts.
They’re driving on the divider. You’d think gas was going out of style
were uttered by Chen as a Mercedes SUV honked and drove right in front of
her. She said, “I don’t understand this. Why are people in a panic for
Kahn, a man who had three-quarters of a tank, explained that he was afraid
the power would go out again, and said, “I want to fill up just in case.
What’s wrong with that?”
Tamara Hartman & Angela Montefinise
Off . . .
of Jamaica residents headed to Rufus King Park.
Jaunz decided to play handball with five of his friends. “My
Playstation’s not working . . . what else was I supposed to do?”
natives Mike Donald and Peter Harris played chess in the park, while
Peter’s wife Melinda read a novel on a bench next to him. She said,
“This is how things used to be when I was young. When it got hot, everyone
was outside. Not now. Everyone just hangs out in the air conditioning.”
the street, neighbors Jallissa Smith and Martina Salon chatted on the steps
of their connecting homes, with Smith saying, “I can’t remember the last
time I sat outside and just talked with people. It’s different. It’s
Dupree, a local teen who decided to play catch with his brother in the park,
said, “I can’t take it anymore. We’ve been tossing the baseball around
for like 10 minutes and I’m dying here.”
Nunzio, a 24-year-old who took her two-year-old daughter to the park, said,
“I don’t think I can leave her out here long. It’s too hot for her.”
the street from the park, one local resident opened up a fire hydrant for
kids to play in, and said, “It’s hot out here, man. I know I’m not
supposed to do that, but these kids are dying out here.”
Endo, a nine-year-old Jamaica resident, was grateful for the charity, and
said, “This is great. I can’t take the heat. I really can’t.” Her
six-year-old brother Mark laughed as he ran through the makeshift sprinkler,
and said, “This feels good.”
one neighbor put the move into the scam category, saying, “This is
ridiculous. It’s against the law to open that thing up. And now it’s all
over. They’ll survive without heat.”
man who opened it responded, “C’mon, this is an extraordinary situation.
You have to do what you have to do to get through it.” He added with a
smirk, “Even if it’s not legal.”
A Helping Hand
the lights went out in Fresh Meadows, 56-year-old resident Jackson Ijuil was
worried. “The first thing I thought was, how is the traffic going to flow?
I got nervous right away thinking about mass chaos. So I grabbed a few
reflectors off my bike and went outside.”
helped direct traffic at six different intersections throughout the day.
“I went to some of the really dangerous ones, like Union Turnpike and
Utopia Parkway. I helped out, but at the really bad ones, the cops showed up
and they took care of it. But I helped.”
said drivers were “extremely cooperative . . . I was afraid that they
wouldn’t pay attention to me. But everyone was well behaved. They knew the
situation was really dangerous.”
Singh, a Briarwood resident, joined his friend and another resident at the
corner of the Grand Central Parkway and Utopia, and said, “We just live
around here and we decided to come out. We don’t want any accidents.”
Mitchell and his 12-year-old son Dennis also hit the streets, wearing white
gloves and wearing reflective vests. Dennis said he was “excited to help
out,” and said, “I feel like I’m making a difference.”
added, “To see the way people are coming out and helping each other, it
kind of restores your faith in the human race. After Sept. 11 and all that,
this is so minor that people aren’t panicking, they aren’t worried.
They’re just helping each other out. That’s great.”
Light In The Dark
County resident Philip Moyan is better known along the streets of Northeast
Queens as Mister Softee.
22-year-old law student drives an ice cream truck around Auburndale over the
summer to “make kids happy,” and said he would never let a silly little
thing like darkness stop him.
said jokingly, “There’s a blackout? I didn’t notice.”
explained that his ice cream truck is powered by a battery, so his lights
were working just fine despite the power problems.
said, “No melting, no problems. I’ve sold more ice cream today than I
have in a long time. People don’t have air conditioning, so they’re
outside and they want something cold. They hear my music and they come
added, “It’s kind of nice. A lot of times, people aren’t outside in
the summer. Today, people are out, they got little transistor radios,
they’re catching fireflies. It’s really sweet in a way.”
was also profitable.
said, “I’m not going to lie, I’m selling a lot. But I didn’t do it,
I swear. I have nothing to do with the blackout.”
for his blackout best seller, he said, “Just plain old vanilla sundaes.
That’s what I’ve sold the most of. I guess people can’t really read
what else I have.”
Good To The Last Drop
power was down, spirits were high at the Emerald Pub on Horace Harding
Expressway in Fresh Meadows as day became night on Thursday.
boisterous gathering of about 10 patrons played billiards by the light of an
7:30 p.m., the bartender there, a young woman who chose not to give her
name, said she was waiting to go home for the day but her replacement who
was due in at 5 p.m. had yet to arrive.
don’t know when I’ll get out of here,” she said.
the lights, jukebox and cash register were rendered temporarily useless, bar
patrons stuck around to partake in the last of the cold beverages. Some of
the bar’s taps were also affected by the blackout – semi-cold bottled
beer was a commodity.
as the sun set over a shadowy borough, some patrons, unsure of what the rest
of the evening held in store, headed out the door in an attempt to make it
home before darkness fell.
Frank Russo, the blackout that turned Queens dark meant only one thing –
“No work tomorrow and good times tonight.”
an accountant who works in New Hyde Park, got home at 5:30 p.m., and said he
immediately hit the Bell Boulevard strip with his wife Linda. He said, “We
wanted to get to the beer before it gets warm,” and added, “If we do
something stupid, it’s too dark for anyone to see.”
spent most of his time at McGuire’s Bar, where a backyard barbecue
attracted a large crowd. He also stopped in Bellvue Bar, where he said,
“The whiskey tastes the same whether the lights are on or not.”
Russos weren’t the only Queens residents to hit Bell Boulevard during the
VIP Pizza the line ran out the door, with the headlights of a Mercedes
parked on the sidewalk lighting up the storefront. “This is surreal,”
Agnes Millner, a local resident, said. “It’s really weird.”
Vesuvio was also selling pizzas like crazy, with dozens of people chowing
down in the street. Stephen Richards, a local resident sipping a Heineken
outside of Bourbon Street restaurant, said, “This is awesome. It’s like
a party in the street. People are just hanging out outside with their food
and everything. It’s like New Orleans or something.”
those looking for something sweet, Ralph’s Italian Ices on Bell obliged,
selling ices quickly. Janet McIntyre, a Bayside resident who took her
six-year-old son Jason to Ralph’s for an ice, said, “It’s so hot in
the house without air conditioning, I figured I should get him an ice. And I
wanted one, anyway.” She added, “I thought maybe the stuff would be
melting and I’d get one for free. Nope. Well, you can’t win them all.”
on Broadway in Astoria kept serving thirsty patrons, who didn’t care when
the Coors got warm.
were plenty of chips and cheetos, but no “real food” was served, said a
bartender at the Broadway Pub.
at Astoria Drums (formerly Mary McGuire’s) ate until the ready-food ran
out, then stayed for warm drinks and cool conversation.
pubs and restaurants along Steinway Street, 30th Ave., 36 Ave. and Ditmars,
patrons ate as long as the food lasted, and then turned to snacks and drinks
to drown their woes.
the Elite Car Wash on 38th Street and 37th Ave., cars were stuck in suds and
on tracks that operate the mechanism. Crews pushed at the cars to the street
and rinsed them at a nearby fire hydrant.
lined up outside the Eckerd Drug Store on Ditmars Blvd., where employees
worked through the night, helping folks find items they needed using
flashlights and lanterns.
store manager said the supply of batteries, flashlights, lamps and lanterns
“disappeared” before sunset. People grabbed up water, and a store
pharmacist worked filling prescriptions by lantern.
asked for candles . . . any kind. Birthday candles, special designs from
Christmas and other holidays – they just didn’t care,” the manager
Stephen McGuire, Angela Montefinise & Liz Goff
the lights went out on August 14th, air-conditioning stopped, refrigerators
slowly warmed, at ice cream stores around Queens.
it was safe to keep scooping Italian ices with flashlights and candles— at
least, that’s how the Corona Lemon Ice King did it.
stayed open until three or four in the morning by candlelight and
flashlight,” said manager Mike Zampino. “Everyone thought we were
closed, but people who walked by or drove by saw us open. It’s a nice
treat for them.”
said that they sold what was left of the ices and kept the rest in their
freezer in the back. When asked why he kept his store open, he chuckled and
said, “I didn’t have anything else to do! I would’ve gone home and
like the Haazen Dazs on 188th St. in Fresh Meadows were forced to close
early and to throw out the ice cream that had already been out and ready to
serve. “We had to get rid of everything that was out and all of the
cakes,” said manager Theresa Deleon, “But we have a huge walk in freezer
in the back that kept most of the extra ice cream frozen.”
manager Wayne Viviano from Ralph’s Italian Ices on Austin St. in Forest
Hills agreed. “We closed a lot earlier that we should’ve. There was only
one person there at the time and it’s not safe to keep scooping ice cream
with no lights on,” he said.
said that they sold what was left of the ices and kept the rest in their
freezer in the back. When asked why he kept his store open, he chuckled and
said, “I didn’t have anything else to do! I would’ve gone home and