Scene on the street: some panic and some pluck

From Staff and Wire Reports

Page 1A

NEW YORK – For the city’s residents, Thursday’s blackout brought back memories of an even darker day.

“It feels like September 11 all over again,” said Staten Island’s Giovanna Leonardo, 26, who stood in an enormous line waiting for a bus Thursday afternoon. “It’s that ‘what’s going on?’ feeling.”

What was going on was plenty of nothing: no power, no air conditioning, no traffic lights, no subways after the power went pffft at 4:11 p.m. on a steamy August day.

The Brooklyn Bridge, a main escape route from Manhattan, was again packed with Brooklynites trudging back home.

Lower Manhattan was flooded with Wall Street workers fleeing their buildings and searching for a way home. People lined up 10 and 20 deep for a few precious minutes at a pay phone. Bridges and tunnels leading into New York City were again shut down.

Thursday night, thousands of people milled outside Grand Central Station, unable to find shelter or any way out of the city. The streets near Times Square were packed as police continued to direct traffic, their flashlights reduced to glow-sticks as the batteries grew weak. Radio reports said benches in Central Park were at a premium.

Even New Yorkers who have long taken pride in their ability to adapt to anything were shaken.

Pauline Palmer, 33, a supervisor for a pension fund, said that in some ways, the blackout was worse than 9-11.

“People we dying – that was worse,” she said. “But at least you could get out of Manhattan.”

At the Port Authority bus terminal, waves of confused commuters were met by a small contingent of harried police officers trying, vainly, to push everyone back out.

“Where are we supposed to go?” one man shouted angrily, his buttoned-down shirt drenched with sweat. “There are a hundred thousand people out there on the street.”

“What do you want from me?” an officer shouted back, leaning into the man’s reddened face. “I didn’t cause this blackout. Now turn around and get out of the building.”

One middle-aged woman collapsed and stopped breathing after walking down many flights of stairs inside the darkened Met Life Building. The paramedics tried desperately to call for an ambulance. There were none to be found amid the sudden chaos. She lay there for more than half an hour, her body growing cold, in a dimly lit corner of Cafe Centro. The paramedics never gave up. Yet by the time an ambulance could be flagged down, it was too late.

The woman, whose identity was not disclosed pending notification of her family, was pronounced dead at St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan.

Of those who could make it out, some went to bars and found pleasure in the fellowship, the booze and the cigarette smoke, nevermind the city’s new smoking ban.

“Everyone who was working left their job and went to a bar,” said Dallas native Linda Rodriguez, a Columbia graduate student who spent the evening night near an open fire hydrant as neighbors danced in the spray. “It’s absolutely like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a huge party.”

Like the city’s residents, the free market adapted quickly. Stores inflated prices on deodorant and toothbrushes, and lines were up to a block long wherever a street vendor could be found selling anything from warm water to hot dogs.

But some grocery stores, seeing their inventory melting, started hawking ice creams at half price.

The only lights on Broadway came from cars, casting thousands of New Yorkers in silhouette as they tramped home, and oddly, from cellphones that pedestrians used as flashlights.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the sun set, promised things would look brighter by sunrise.

“Tomorrow, we’ll be back up to business as usual,” the mayor said. Shortly after 9 p.m., power was already returning in part of the Bronx.

Even the delis were forced to adapt. Near midtown Manhattan, several moved their suddenly unrefrigerated food from the deli case to ice-filled buckets.

“Half price on everything,” one sign read. Other deli workers simply gave away their slowly spoiling goods.

Within two hours, police and firefighters had searched the city’s major high-rise buildings and were fairly sure no one was trapped. Within a few hours, the city’s subways were evacuated.

“Y2K finally happened, people!” cried a young man walking up Broadway, stutter-stepping through the crowd. On Sixth Avenue, a man, walking down a center traffic lane, said to his friend, “This is like in those movies, man, when a bomb drops or something and you have to live off the land.”

In Times Square, all the neon lights were dark.

Calm appeared to prevail, though so did bewilderment and tension. There were no reports of panic or looting.

Mr. Bloomberg quickly assured New Yorkers that terrorism was not involved – the first thought that occurred to Manhattan hair stylist Renato Vasconcelos.

“This is just too weird,” he said.

Manhattan streets were flooded with pedestrians, most of whom had no idea how they might get home to Brooklyn or Queens, New Jersey or Connecticut. The north-south avenues in Manhattan held more traffic and were better lit than the crosstown canyons, where skyscrapers blocked ambient light.

“Westchester for $,” read a sign held by one woman standing near Gov. George Pataki’s East Side office, headed for the suburbs.

“I don’t know how I am going to get home,” said Marjorie Mitchell, 26, a bank worker in Lower Manhattan who lives in suburban White Plains. “The trains are dead. My cell is dead. This is absolutely frightening.”

A man who managed to get a cellphone signal worried aloud into the phone about the potential for melting ice and rotting meat. Another man on lower Broadway complained to a police officer about a vendor immediately boosting the price of bottled water from $1 to $2.

Perhaps that was a bargain. Another vendor wanted $5 for “ice-cold water” – and the bottles were hot. On 125th Street near Lenox Avenue, a young man walked around offering “flashlights – $25; batteries – $10.”

In Lower Manhattan, people wandered the streets in a scene reminiscent of the World Trade Center attacks. At some intersections, pedestrians stood directing traffic. In residential areas, neighbors fetched candles and hung out on sidewalks, in a sort of “get to know your neighbor” night.

Many businesses were forced to shut down early, their cash registers and lights rendered impotent by the massive outage.

Power went out in all five boroughs as well as the suburbs in the worst outage to strike the nation’s largest city since 1977, when electricity disappeared for 25 hours.

Buses were packed past capacity, and with good reason: They were among the only places in the city where the air conditioning was still blowing. At some stops, two people would get off and 20 would struggle to get on.

Staff writers Todd J. Gillman and Dorothy Griffith in New York and Joshua Benton in Dallas contributed to this report.