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In The Dark: The Great Blackout of 2003

In The Dark: The Great Blackout of 2003

August 14, 2003 started out like any other day. The long slog to work from my east end Toronto home to the studio I was working at in the west end of the city. The heat, the humidity, the daily grind. Oh, the things we take for granted in our routined and choreographed lives. It may have started out like any other day, but it was to end with the biggest, most widespread blackout in North American history.

I remember that day as a very hot one—one in a long succession of hot, humid days that had air conditioners working overtime and nerves beginning to fray at the edges. The summer had been sweltering and people just wanted a bit of a break from the oppressive heat. We were about to get a break, but it wasn’t from the heat.

As the mood darkened like our monitors, the conversation changed to the prospect of a terrorist attack.

1339827_80b778638fAs is well-documented, the power went out at 4:11 pm that day. Of course, no one had any idea of the magnitude of the event, most of us just thought it was a small glitch in the grid and that the power would be up and running in short order. As we sat around the studio chatting and twiddling our thumbs, we noticed the duration of the outage. We were starting to think this wasn’t a typical power down situation. I happened to be in possession of a Sony Disc Man which had an AM /FM radio. I tuned into CBC to hear if there was any news of the power outage. Oh, was there news.

I hushed the studio as I listened and parroted what I was hearing to my colleagues. The grid was down and the outage had cut a swath across southern Ontario and into upstate New York. This was big. They were saying that there was no indication of when the power was to return and authorities were investigating. The mood turned. Now, one has to remember the times: 9/11 wasn’t too far in the past and the invasion of Iraq had just happened. We were in heightened political, militaristic and emotional states back then. As the mood darkened like our monitors, the conversation changed to the prospect of a terrorist attack.

Suddenly people wanted to leave, get home and find their family and friends…especially after news that the outage had hit the eastern seaboard, including New York City, Boston and other major centres. The news kept insisting there was no sign of a terror attack. This placated most of us and we started to figure out ways to get from our studio to our homes. No easy feat. In situations such as these, one takes for granted the public transit, traffic signals, phones, infrastructure and all of the other tools we use to get around on a daily basis. This was about to be greatly evident in the next few hours.

With subways down and surface roads clogged with buses and cars, Toronto tried to get home. Some carpooled, some waited for a bus while others just walked. And walk they did. A few people I worked with decided the walk from Lawrence West and Keele to downtown was manageable and set forth on their journey. I was lucky to get a lift close to my home in the east end as a walk from work may have outlasted the blackout. As we drove in the full car, it was eerily quasi-apocalyptic to see hundreds of people walking along the sides of roads and highways, mostly passing the cars who were stuck in traffic. Two hours later (a 30-minute ride on a normal day) I arrived in the vicinity of my neighbourhood and proceeded to hoof it the rest of the way.

The beach sparkled and glowed with candlelight as far as they eye could see.

CandlesAs I got into my neighbourhood I noticed the patios packed with people and the air filled with the sound of laughter and excited chatter. Not quite what I was expecting. As I made my way home I passed a patio where I spotted a couple of friends. They invited me to join them for drinks and so the angst of a massive power outage turned to a celebration of life off the grid. We knew the owner of the establishment and he popped over with some beer and said they were $2 each. We were somewhat thunderstruck by this offer and he explained that with no power he had no way of keeping his supplies refrigerated and decided to have a sell off. Food, booze, the whole kit and kaboodle. We sat on the patio eating, drinking, laughing, exchanging stories and theories with the tables around us as the sun began to wane on the horizon.

A blackout in a major city is one thing during the day, but it can be quite another as night falls. There was a mix of ebullience and trepidation as day turned to night and we were plunged into real darkness, lit only by the candles on our tables. The questions came: would there be looting? Would there be civil unrest? Would there be a crime spree? How would Toronto deal with its first long, dark night? Should we go home and lock the doors and shut the windows? Remember, similar situations in major American cities in the 60s and 70s turned dangerously violent. Anything was possible.

Instead, Toronto rose beautifully to the challenge of life without power. I got home and took a box of candles and knocked on my neighbours doors offering them light if they were stuck in the dark. In doing so, I became a candle-toting Pied Piper. My neighbours and I decided to beat the heat of our darkened apartments and head down the street to the beach. Armed with candles, blankets, a little food and a lot of wine, we set up on the sand and looked west to the fading silhouette of the city. It was beautiful. What was even more beautiful was that hundreds of others in the area had the same idea as the beach filled with revellers bearing candles, battery-operated boom boxes, booze and food. The beach sparkled and glowed with candlelight as far as they eye could see.

The Great Blackout brought out the best in the people of Toronto.

blackout.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterboxSpontaneous celebrations broke out all along the shoreline as the night sky filled with stars many of us had never seen from our vantage point of the bright lights in the big city. Bonfires crackled as we all became a city of one. Neighbour meeting neighbour—sometimes for the first time—shared stories, shared food, shared wine, shared candles. As we walked back up the street from the beach, BBQs and porch parties were humming from just about every home as folks shouted “Hi” and even invited us to come by for a burger and a beer. Unable to sleep in the close heat of my apartment, I grabbed a beer and sat on my front step and watched people trekking up and down Queen street. It was eerily dark as flashlights and voices were the only harbingers of people approaching. Still, the celebratory mood remained. The next morning we all checked in on one another and set about dealing with a powerless life.

When the power finally returned it was with a great sigh of relief and also a little disappointment. For a brief time we had united as not just citizens but as neighbours banding together to deal with a very unusual situation. Collectively, we took a potentially bad situation and made it a celebration. We reached out to our friends, family, neighbours and people we’d only passed on the street, and to total strangers. We made new friends and discovered what community really is in a big, cold metropolis. Ironically, we were without power but we were filled with positive energy. The Great Blackout brought out the best in the people of Toronto.


andrewv100x100Andrew Vail’s writing career began in Halifax when he was but a child. In Grade 4, he wrote and produced his own series of comic books entitled “Freaky The Frog”, the on-going tale of a little misfit frog and his pals of the pond. Marvel Comics never came knocking but Andrew knew he loved to create and tell stories. Since then, Andrew has worked in advertising, PR and publicity; has interviewed politicians, rock stars and very interesting yet not-so-famous movers and shakers. He has published articles in a variety of local and national magazines and websites.

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One Comment

  1. I remember thinking how glad I was to live in Parkdale and not further away from downtown! My strappy sandals wouldn’t have survived the walk…

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