Remembering When the Lights Went Out in 1965

November 9th is the 36th anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout

Shortly after 5 P.M., on November 9, 1965 lights began to flicker on and off in New York City.  Power had failed, first, in Buffalo, Rochester and Albany.

Within four minutes…the blackout spread like falling dominoes to Boston, Connecticut, Vermont, Canada and then Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and most of Brooklyn. The blackout of 1965 left about 30  million people in 80,000 square miles without power for up to 12 hours.   

Up to then it was the largest power failure in history and it struck at the evening rush hour. More than 800,000 riders were trapped in the city’s subways. Railroads stopped.  Traffic was a mess.

Here at NBC, we had lost power but emergency generators were turned on, and we were able to activate a small studio. The problem was that the millions of tv sets in homes throughout the metropolis couldn’t receive a program --  there was no electricity.

But, stubbornly, because that’s who we were, we decided to do a broadcast anyway.  By candlelight, NBC anchor Frank McGee talked about the blackout in a program sent by line down to Washington.  Jim Hartz reported [without film] about his travels through the congested streets of Manhattan.

And I reported on incidents I’d seen. 

One thing  that struck me was how people were pitching in to try to help. There were New Yorkers at nearly every major intersection along Fifth and Sixth avenues acting as volunteer traffic cops. Trying to keep the traffic moving but also looking out for the interests of pedestrians. It was exhilarating to see how people were jumping into action to fill the void. And we were glad to fulfill our journalistic mission, even if it was just reporting to the people of Washington.

The crowds were orderly. It was almost impossible to get a cab. And many commuters tried to make arrangements to stay overnight in Manhattan. There were lines at hotel reception desks. The sidewalks were brimming with people -- and there was a spirit of camaraderie in the air. It was New York at its best -- showing a spirit of survival, of innovation.

Five thousand police officers were summoned to duty and 10,000 National Guardsmen were called up.

The New York Times iconic reporter, Peter Kihss, wrote: “Thousands of persons hiked across the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges. On the Queensboro span, cars crawled behind the trudging pedestrians….Five hours after the blackout, the police reported five arrests on looting charges…there were some reports of minor vandalism, but generally New Yorkers appeared to have been on their best behavior.”

The blackout came, he said, “when the homebound rush was under way, but on an autumn day when twilight was nearly past and night was closing in.” 

In historic terms, it turned out, it was not New York’s worst blackout. The blackout of August 14, 2003, affected 50 million people.

But the 1965 incident was notable in that it made New Yorkers and the nation as a whole realize how vulnerable we were to power failure.

And, in a sense, it brought home to everyone the importance of cooperation and volunteers in meeting emergencies. It was 36 years before 9/11 but it gave us an inkling, at least, of how exposed we are to technological failure. And the feeling of togetherness generated by the emergency conditions made us feel good too.    

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