The late 70s were a dismal time for most Americans. President Carter described it as a “crisis of confidence” in his famous “Malaise speech” in 1979. The darkest moment in this dark time, both figuratively and literally, was the blackout of New York City in the sweltering summer of 1977.
The summer of 1977 was a miserable time for New York. The Yankee’s hadn’t won a World Series in 13 years. The apocalyptic and imminent global cooling promised by activists at the First Earth Day in 1970 had failed to materialize and the high temperatures routinely broke records that July. Crime also reached new record highs that wouldn’t be broken until the crack epidemic in the 80s, as gangs took over portions of the city. (When “The Warriors” was filmed the next year, a near-futuristic dystopian modern take on the Anabasis where gangs tried to take over the city, New Yorkers weren’t sure if it was fantasy, fiction, or a documentary.) The pervasive sense of fear was palatable: that summer, the Son of Sam went about murdering random New Yorkers with a .44 cal revolver. No one felt safe. The overworked New York City police were powerless in the face of this wave of crime. Police officers were routinely targeted for assassination which greatly reduced their effectiveness. Furthermore, New York was in the midst of a financial and budget crisis which led to pay freezes and layoffs in the police and city administrations, and spread the already small NYPD even thinner. City services were curtailed, and city maintenance was neglected.
Around 8:30 pm on 13 July 1977, a lightning strike hit a power line which overloaded the large Ravenswood’s generator, and a faulty circuit breaker prevented it from shutting down. This overloaded the Consolidated Edison Indian Point Water Power Plant which did shut down. Further lightning strikes cut powerlines to other generators and power stations. In less than 30 minutes, 90% of the five boroughs, over 7,000,000 people, were without power, just as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was the sixth inning between the Mets and the Cubs when the lights went out.
Then the chaos began.
Hundreds were stuck in elevators and tens of thousands were stuck in traffic or on the subway, both of which came to an immediate standstill. 911 emergency lines were swamped with almost 20 million phone calls (!) that night, despite radio stations broadcasting desperate pleas from city officials to only make calls in life or death circumstances. However, most calls were less about the electricity and more about their fellow New Yorkers taking advantage of the darkness.
The only lights in New York City after 9pm were car headlights and fires. The New York Fire Department responded to over 1100 cases of arson that night, and hundreds more false alarms, including many ambushes by gang members. Most of Broadway was on fire. The next morning, one city paper ran the headline, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning.” The city was lit by an eerie orange and purple glow of flashing lights and raging fires among its homes and businesses. But for all the fire damage to the city, the looters and vandals were worse.
The 2500 NYPD cops on the ground were quickly overwhelmed with the sheer scale of violence, destruction, and looting that began in the twilight of the setting sun. Before it got so dark on that moonless night that you could barely see the hand in front of your face, all 12,000 on and off duty police were on the streets.
Home invasions were common but the looting of the closed businesses easier. On the night of 13-14 July 1977, New York City was sacked. The massive wave of looters took everything that wasn’t nailed down. One looter was heard yelling through the streets, “It’s Christmas time!” Few businesses in the city escaped damage. One car dealership lost 57 cars stolen off the lot. TV crews were usually attacked as their recording cameras were evidence, but one crew was offered stolen jewelry for cheap while broadcasting live. Many neighborhood blocks barricaded themselves in and shot at anyone they didn’t recognize, so the more industrious of criminals just mugged the looters. It was safer.
In the frenzy, the looters took anything, if they didn’t need or want it, they could sell it or give it away. The police arrested one looter with a bag of clothes pins; and another with bags of macaroni. 3700 suspected looters were arrested that night: The largest mass arrest in New York history.
What separates the Blackout of 1977 and the ones of 1965 and 2003 was the chaos continued in the daylight. The power finally came back on 25 hours later. $300,000,000 in damage was done to the city. The damage was almost as bad as the New York Draft Riots 114 years previously, when Union warships had to bombard the city. The New York State Power Authority canvassed all the best trade schools and hired and trained the best electrical students to work in the power plants, replacing the city run Consolidated Edison employees that were found negligent in causing the Blackout. Mayor Abe Beame would eventually lose the Democratic primary, and the mayor’s office, to challenger Ed Koch the next election.
For New Yorkers it was a day akin to 9/11, the Challenger explosion, or the death of John F. Kennedy.