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Controlled chaos on the streets of New York

From Greg Botelho

Vehicles and pedestrians shared the Brooklyn Bridge Thursday.
Vehicles and pedestrians shared the Brooklyn Bridge Thursday.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Thursday's massive blackout left thousands of New York City residents, commuters and tourists flooding the streets of Manhattan just as the afternoon rush hour was getting under way.

The exodus was massive, but New Yorkers weathered the day's events in a spirit of controlled chaos.

Thousands clogged the Brooklyn Bridge on their way out of Manhattan, calmly sharing lanes with cars and taxis in 90 degree heat. Many climbed over the barrier to use the bridge's walkway.

But many other New Yorkers were stuck. Some above ground in elevators, and some underground in very hot, crowded subway cars.

A man named Francis said he was stuck for about an hour between the first and second floors of one Manhattan building. The building maintenance workers could not get him out, but Verizon workers in the street eventually helped to free him.

"They had to open the entire top of the elevator," he told CNN. "In the beginning, I was scared. The lights faded out and then just darkness, and then the elevator stopped. And I didn't know what to do. I just kept banging the door."

Peter Balzano, who works for an elevator company, said he and his co-worker were responding to any building that needs them.

"We're just driving around to all the buildings that we maintain and just checking in with supers, seeing if anyone's been stuck, any problems," Balzano said. "Elevators aren't running in the city, so most of the people that are stuck are stuck until we get there."

D train conductor Ray Lynch said his train simply stopped near the corner of Central Park West and West 66th Street when the power went out.

He helped get hundreds of passengers off the train, through the tunnels and up through the exits.

"It took us about an hour to get the people off," Lynch said. "We had about a full house, about 800 people on the train. Everybody acted very good."

One of the worst things, he said, was that the air conditioning went out along with the lights. "The car gets hot, very sticky," he said.

For the most part, traffic actually ran smoothly. New Yorkers took it upon themselves to be traffic cops, standing in the street and assisting motorists on streets with no signals.

And once the initial worries of terrorism were wiped away, most people took things in stride.

"We're just here for fun and we're just going to fry outside," chuckled Aaron Owens, of Newark, Delaware, who was in New York on vacation with his wife. "Everybody looks very calm, and now people are just sitting around watching people."

Not that the blackout didn't have severe consequences.

Subways and commuter trains were shut down, stranding tens of thousands of people. Broadway shows were dark for the night, as were many restaurants and other businesses. Cellular telephone service was spotty, and people crowded around pay phones to make calls.

"It's a pain in the butt," said Jeff Fields, who was standing in line to get tickets for the "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" studio audience when the electricity went out, shutting the line down. Fields' main concern was how he would get back home to New Jersey

Subway riders are directed out of a subway station in Manhattan.

For many, the initial uncertainty over the possibility of terrorism was replaced with concern for those who might be stuck, hurt or sick during the power outage.

"At first, I didn't know what to think it was," said Ralph Bona, also of New Jersey, who was stuck in an elevator in his Park Avenue office building for more than 30 minutes. "Then you get nervous. You think something terrible has happened."

Thought his initial concerns about terrorism proved to be unwarranted, Bona remained concerned. "The ambulances are flying through," he said. "Hopefully, no one's life is in danger."

Heeding Mayor Michael Bloomberg's request to go home, people prepared for a dark night, buying candles and batteries for flashlights.

'Very cool, very level-headed'

Saint Vincent's Hospital medical technician LaToya Arrington was on the A Train when the lights went out: "They told us it was a blackout throughout the city, so you know, we followed directions and people were very, very cool and very level-headed."

But as soon as she got to work, she was sent out to buy water. On her way back, pushing a shopping cart full of bottled water, she said she was going back to work to freeze the water and then give it to patients.

"We have two freezers working in there, so we're going to throw these in the freezers and help them get cool," she said. "We have patients there, diabetics, [so] we have to walk and get water and food for them so they won't go into a coma."

Most of the staff members, she said, planned to spend the night at Saint Vincent's.

Many other New Yorkers, however, were able to get home.

Gina Higgins, of Staten Island, was in her Sixth Avenue office when the lights went out, and then walked down 38 flights of stairs to get to the street. She was able to get a bus to catch the Staten Island Ferry, and said she felt lucky that she would be able to get home. She felt even better upon hearing that some power was starting to come back.

"It could be a lot worse," she said. "I'm just grateful it wasn't that bad."

How power grids work

Saturday, August 16, 2003 Posted: 12:11 PM EDT (1611 GMT) WASHINGTON (AP) -- Electricity generation stations throughout the United States are interconnected in a system called power grids. This allows electricity generated in one state to be sent to users in another state. It also allows distant power generation stations to provide electricity for cities and towns whose power generators may have failed or been destroyed by some accident or sabotage. In the U.S. electrical system, there are more than 6,000 power generating units energized with coal, oil, gas, falling water, wind or nuclear fission. Power from these stations is moved around the country on almost a half-million miles of bulk transmission lines that carry high voltage charges of electricity. The power transmission is directed by more than 100 control centers. Experts there can monitor the distribution of power and reroute electricity from areas of low demand to areas of high demand. Often there are automatic switches that direct the routing of power to where it is needed. Demand can become unbalanced From the high voltage transmission lines, power goes to regional and neighborhood substations. There, the electricity is stepped down from high voltage to a current that can be used in homes and offices. High or unbalanced demands for power that develop suddenly can upset the smooth distribution of electricity in a grid. In some cases, this can cause a blackout in one section of a grid, or even ripple throughout the whole grid, sequentially shutting down one section after another. Once large sections of a grid are shut down, it may be difficult or impossible to restore power from neighboring grids. In periods of high demand, such as summer, often those nearby grids also are under stress and may not have spare power. When power is restored, it can cause a sudden surge in demand that the system may not be able to accommodate. When electric motors, transformers and other electrical devices are all energized at once, it can draw many times the normal load and can trip a secondary shutdown. For this reason, engineers restore power after a massive blackout in stages, one section after another, so there is no sudden, overwhelming demand.