NEW YORK - A massive blackout shut down power throughout theNortheast around 4:11 p.m. on Thursday, wreaking havoc all the way to Canada and halting virtually all business.As the power went off with the wink of a computer or sigh of an air-conditioner, blank stares and confusion quickly led way to the realization that the problem was greater than any one building, block or street. On Seventh Avenue, garment workers began to leave their offices, and some buildings were evacuated, as the enormous scope of the power failure was realized. Naturally, there were immediate concerns of terrorism, but surprisingly little panic as thousands of garment workers, shoppers and others throughout New York, as far north as Toronto and as far east as Detroit flooded out of buildings and into streets where stoplights didn't work, weaving between cars that could not move.In New York, people were trapped in subways that stopped on the tracks, in elevators stuck between floors, and in a broader sense, all of Manhattan was suddenly a city with no plausible escape.Workers stood in front of all the big towers of fashion design, at 550, 530 and 512 Seventh Avenue and wondered what to do. Some began to walk home; others from New Jersey or Long Island had no clue how to get home, and even less of an idea of what had happened, as radio stations continued to play dance music or broadcast only static. Phones worked in many offices, but it was nearly impossible to get a signal on a cell phone.What was instantly dubbed "The Blackout of 2003" darkened homes and offices as far south as northern New Jersey,as far east as western Connecticut and into Ohio. For all the concerns of a more nefarious cause, about three hours later, Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Canadian officials believed the outage started when lightning hit a power plant in Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the Department ofHomeland Security reassured Americans that it was a power outage, not a terrorist act.In a late afternoon briefing, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that "at the moment, people are doing what you'd expect them to be doing in New York City - they're cooperating." He said there were no reported incidents of violence or looting, and that the greatest immediate concern was for people stuck on subway cars and in the elevators of tall buildings.CNN reported that the equity markets lost no data as a result of the blackout, which began shortly after the markets closed. Ironically, the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the day up 39 points while the Nasdaq advanced 14.It would not be an understatement to say that virtually every business in the region came to a standstill. Macy's, the world's largest department store, closed immediately, while stores from the tony salons of Fifth Avenue to the designer boutiques of SoHo shut their gates. Many workers sat on the stoops of the Express and H&M stores on 34th Street; at Comp USA on Fifth Avenue, a dozen men in red polo shirts stood guard, with leary eyes on the masses, now teeming in the streets.Amazingly, not every one stopped working. Dana Telsey, the Bear Stearns analyst who specializes in the luxury and apparel industries, sat at her desk waiting for a conference call from Kohl's scheduled for 5 p.m. "I haven't heard of any problems," Telsey said, from the 32nd floor of her office on Madison Avenue. "It's business as usual. We're in the middle of earnings, sitting in the dark." Later, she said the call went through as expected, "and all on the call were on the call."Among every individual, there were conflicting feelings of fears of the worst, or that any friend was hurt, and humor at the utter bizarreness of a citywide blackout, where at least then, there were no reports of serious injuries.Cynthia Rowley, the designer, stepped out of her office at 550 Seventh Avenue, having walked down the 24 flights with two staff members. She was laughing nervously, concerned about her four-year-old daughter at home in TriBeCa with ananny, who she could not reach by phone. "We were on a deadline and there was a huge crash," Rowley said. "We don't know what to do. We're walking. We've got to get out of here. Her boyfriend is circling around the airport on a plane coming in from Tokyo. They don't know what's happening, and we have to go to break into a store to steal some flip-flops. We're all wearing heels."At the offices of Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta, workers were sent home, andde la Renta was seen going back into 550 Seventh Avenue to check on his staff. Monica Belag-Forman, the president of Magashoni Apparel Group, said there was no panicking as she left 525 Seventh Avenue, but that the stairwells were jammedwith people. "You discover what aa fire hazard these building are," she said. "I called the emergency number for the building and I got a recording that said there was no emergency." At Vivienne Tam, Gabriel Gima, who directs the company's marketing, said employees were sent home, and that the designer was actually in her home on West 22nd Street at the time, being interviewed by areporter from InStyle magazine. No one knew if she was safe. One of Diane Von Furstenberg's employees reached the designer at her home in Connecticut,where there was also no power. At Polo Ralph Lauren, Roger Farah, chief operating officer, caught a ride with the senior vice president of humanresources to his home in Westchester, while Lauren himself was at the office in editorial meetings.At Seventh Avenue and 37th Street, one man began playing tango music, ironically on an electric guitar, as if it were the Titanic and he was going down with it. On Sixth Avenue, in front of Victoria's Secret, about 30 people mobbed the entrance to an Orange Line bus, the driver yelling back at them and flailinghis arms."There is just no information," said Amy Silverstein, who works on the 16th floor of 530 Seventh Avenue at Nina Leonard, and had reconvened on the street with Gail Karp and Michael Baker from the company's separate seventh flooroffice, where they discussed how to get to their homes in Long Island. "Usually the building is good with information like that, but there was no announcement, and probably no way to make one."It was like this all over the city, weird moments of questioning not only directions, but the meaning of what they were doing, and reacting in ways thatonly New Yorkers can, as Mayor Bloomberg asked New Yorkers to hopefully remember where they were the day of the blackout. At a factory on West 38th Street, workers putting together the Marc by Marc Jacobs sample collection sat in front of idle sewing machines, stuck at a crucial moment in the preparation of the line, which will be shown in less than a month. Angela Lindvall, the model, was in an apartment in the Meatpacking District talking about the importance of natural resources, the subject of a charity she is starting. "It's to raise awareness and provide positive social change and resources," she said by telephone. "This is the time to look at our resources and respect them. We need to be focusing on alternative resources for fuel."At Lord & Taylor, a doorman was unaware that the power was off around the city, but advised customers to exit the store anyway. One shopper was seen putting several special occasion dresses on hold. A woman tried to enter Lord & Taylor to return merchandise, but security staff had to stop her at the entrance. "All I want to do is return something I bought earlier," she said, when a guard informed her that the store was closed."I was supposed to meet my husband," said Christine Haffenden, a New Yorker who had been looking for a dress to wear to her wedding. The lights went out and an announcement asked patrons to evacuate for their own safety.Further down Fifth Avenue, a group of women bought tank tops at a store called Oasis of New York, and one of them changed out of her blouse on the street because she was so hot. Charan Ahluwalia and his family, visiting the city from Indiana, then bought several of the shirts for $3.99 with a similar idea. At David Z, a shoe store, employees were having a hard time lowering an electric gate, a common site at jewelry and apparel shops around the area. One man sold bottles of water for $5 in front of H&M on 34th Street, where a woman from Queens who gave her name as Marcia, said, "I came just to go to H&M and I walked in just in times for the lights to go out. I'm just happy I wasn't in the subway."A hardware store on Seventh Avenue was only letting handfuls of customers in at a time. A line had formed outside while store clerks pulled flashlightsout of the windows."Its a little crazy. It's so 9/11 reminiscent," said Claudia Hawkins, a spokeswoman for Gap Inc. "Why does this keep happening to New York? Weactually have calls out to our operations folks but haven't heard back."For many, getting home would not be easy. Daniella Adamez, 13, and her sister Ana, 15, who live in the Bronx, stood But it did not arrive. "I'm thinkingabout 9/11," said Ana. But mostly, it was like 9/11 only to the extent that order seemed to coalesce almost instantly out of chaos. Outside coffee bars, busboys handed out ice cream to people on the streets, quickly having realized that frozen goods would be melted within hours. On 46th Street and 6th Avenue, more than 15 people waited patiently on line at the Mr. Smoothie who was morethan happy to unload his truck-and he kept right on charging."Just be happy," said Dee Brown of Brooklyn as she waited for ice cream. "I'mgoing to meet my husband down at NYU and we'll cross the Brooklyn Bridge,go home, maybe make love. Take it in stride. What else can you do? At least it's not raining."At Victoria's Secret's corporate offices at 1114 Sixth Avenue, workers were told to go home if they felt uncomfortable. But as one employee said, "It was no big deal. No one panicked or anything." At the company's Seventh Avenue offices,Victoria's Secret Beauty ceo Robin Burns told her employees to partner up with people to ensure that they had people got home or alternatively, had a place to stay.And there were other moments of levity.At the Conde Nast building on West 43rd Street, GQ editor Jim Nelson joked with staffers in the lobby as he prepared to trek down to his apartment on Avenue B."I could probably commandeer a car, but I'm opting to give it to the people," hesaid with a smile. Outside, Teen Vogue publisher Gina Sanders, stood with editor Amy Astley.Asked how she was getting home, Sanders said, "On foot. and I'm taking all of these people with me."But Sanders had no plans of walking home. A half hour later, she was still standing there with her editor waiting to get a ride.And of course, good behavior did not make the situation any less inconvenient. Businesses like Giorgio Armani Parfums, Avon, and Estee Lauder, quicklybecame unreachable when phone lines broke down or got jammed. And drug stores -among them CVS, Rite Aid, and Duane Reade, and Walgreens - were closed throughout Manhattan. And for people who called City Hall, the only thingavailable was an automated message: "We are experiencing a city-wide power outage. No additional information is available at this time. For life threatening emergencies, please call 911."Almost no one seemed to recover as quickly as the New York Times. Shortly after six o'clock, alternate power was up and running in the main newsroomand a contingency plan was put in place to print a double run of the paper out of the Edison, N.J. facility. Another facility for the paper was down.At the Style Desk of the paper, the staff was down to about one in every five computers in the middle of their close. But editors there said they hadno anticipation the section would not get out on time.At Saks Fifth Avenue at 5:30, the only sense of the power out was the empty store and the lack of lights. By all appearances, it was empty.For larger businesses with expensive alarm systems, there may not be much worry. At Wal-Mart, a spokesman said, "We have an alarm system where we know exactly what we have to do with our stores." By 4 p.m., the spokesman knew of about 12stores in the United States and several dozen in Canada (mainly Toronto) stores were being shut down."It's been chaos," said a representative Railroad. "All my phones are ringing like crazy. I'm giving out bus information and trying to calm people down." She said none of the L.I.R.R. trains were running but that busses were up and running.But all of the airports in the New York metropolitan area - JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark - were shut down, although Reagan National Airport and Dulles International outside Washington D.C. were fully operational.Los Angeles, which had several large outages last summer, got lucky this time around and all of the power was working.A National Retail Federated spokesman offered perspective on the impact of the current blackout by comparing it to the snowstorm that decimated President's Weekend this year. "This is a blip on the radar screen compared with that. It'sThursday in afternoon. It's not a weekend. It's not a holiday weekend."The impact on businesses was clearly bad, but no one could exactly say. Gap closed 500 stores for its three brands, in addition to its distribution centersin New York and Toronto.Hours later, there was still no answer as an officer at Midtown North Precinctanswered the phone, declining to comment on reported incidents of looting or injury in stores or businesses in the fashion district. "We're trying to getour effort together right now," he said. "Try calling back in a couple of hours."No one was allowed to enter the Empire State Building following the blackout, "people are only going out," a security guard said. There were no elevatorsoperating, forcing people towalk down from the top of the city's tallest building, now unairconditioned. There was no immediate indication of howmany people were stuck at the time in the building's 73 elevators, which includes many apparel industry tenants like Amerex, the outerwear company.At Liz Claiborne's headquarters at 1441 Broadway, most employees went home after the power went out, but around 5:30 p.m., there were still a few people waiting around the lobby."I'm starting from the top floor to the bottom and making sure not a customer is left in the store," said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Henri Bendel. "We're going to have to adjust the employee situation and see whether we have to leave the store open-if an employee doesn't have anywhereto go or can't get home. It's a little bit wait and see."A sales associate at jeweler Joseph Edwards on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street wasremoving jewelry and watches from the window displays, possibly for fear of looting. At Lux, Bond & Green, the 7-store jewelry chain based in West Hartford, CT, two stores closed early, said a company spokeswoman."Our Westport and Greenwich stores closed early but the rest were open asusual," she said. "We lost power here for a few seconds but it came on right away." Stores along West 34th Street closed quickly, and on Broadway, outside Macy's Herald Square flagship, shopper Jasna Bektesevic of the Bronx, recalled the moment the lights died."There was a little flicker and then everything went dark," she said. "Some people yelled out, but some people were calm."Bektesevic said she made her way down from the store's third floor and out to the street.Outside 1411 Broadway, Tara Bonacasa, a designer with Donnkenny Inc., said she was in her 10th-floor office when things went dark."A lot of people just stayed in the office," she said.Noting that it was around 4 p.m., she said many people appeared to be just heading home.At the offices of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, deputy director Jerry SScupp and some associate waited in the dark. Scupp said he called in the BID's 16 security officers who were on duty after the power went out, to wait for instructions from the New York Police Department."With the phones and the radio [transmitter] our, there was no way we could tell them what to do," he said.While phone service was not interrupted, phone systems that relied on AC power were out. Heavy volume on cell phone networks also made communication difficult.Travelers banded together into herds, walking in the streets. Two lanes of Broadway were taken over by pedestrians, and police officers, includingplainclothes detectives, seemed hard-pressed to keep traffic flowing in an orderly fashion.Dan Selinka, president of converter Chopak Fabrics, was escorting two female employees home - a long walk to the Upper East Side lay ahead of him."What else can I do?" he asked. "The trains are out."As the clock approached six and it became apparent that power wasn't coming on anytime soon, merchants began to wrestle with heavy security gates, pulling them down over display windows.Some acknowledged that the memory of the blackouts of the 1970s - and the ensuing looting - was still fresh."Right now, we're just waiting it out," Scupp continued. "I don't want to send everyone out on the street right now."As the hour passed five, the casual groups on the garment district's streets grew more purposeful. Co-workers discussed alternative travel plans andsome Manhattanites began offering to take friends and colleagues in.One woman, discussing a long walk home with a friend, pointed to her friend's pointy, high-heeled footwear and said, "First, I'll have to buy you a newpair of shoes."Mainstream chains were more affected than higher end fashion stores considering it's back to school season. While Saks Fifth Avenue and Federated Department Stores described Thursday as a typical fall day, in terms of anticipatedvolume, J.C. Penney suggested it was not an average day. "This is an important back-to-school day certainly," said Vanessa Castagna, chairman and ceo ofJCPenney stores, catalog and Internet. However, she added that this weekend is even more important, considering the national chain was planning a very happy if the power comes back on by tomorrow," Castagna said.She added that between 150 and 175 stores were affected, but a lot of small stores had no communications with the central office so there could be more impacted. As far as sales date, "There would be no loss. We have a lot of backups so there is no problem at all," Castagna noted.Federated also said data wouldn't be lost. "It's all backed up on a main computer out of Atlanta," said Carol Sanger, spokeswoman. The Bloomingdale'sflagship was in the dark. "Everything is out," said Anne Keating, senior vice president.Simon Property Group, the nation's largest mall operator, confirmed at least seven malls were closed, including Roosevelt Field, Smith Haven, The Source and Walt Whitman malls on Long Island, as well as Jefferson Valley north of WhitePlains, Newport Center just across the Hudson River in Jersey City, Menlo Park, also in New Jersey and Summit Mall in Akron, Ohio, and as of around 6 p.m., the developer had not heard from the Nanuet and Westchester malls, according toBillie Scott, director of public relations.Saks Fifth Avenue reported that about a dozen stores were shut down, including the flagship, where the company was organizing a sleep-over for about 50 employees that couldn't get home and had no place to go. "We have enough stuff for everybody to be comfortable," said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising,adding that there would be pillows and linens from thehome department and food for the eighth floor restaurant for employees. They would be sleeping in the tower portion of the store, which has its own generators, providing light and air conditioning.The company seemed prepared for the emergency. "We closed our store right when the blackout happened," Lividini said.She also said that most of the 1,200 employees had places to go and that Saks has a "team" system, where people buddy up and stay with fellow employeesat their homes.May Co. said about 20 Filene's and Kaufmann's units and about 10 Lord & Taylorstores were without power as of around 6:45 p.m.While most of New York was concerned with the local impact of the blackout, there were problems throughout the region, through Cleveland and into Toronto. Retailers in Toronto shut down, as well. At Due West Clothing Co., a jeansstore in the city's trendy Queen Street West district, the outage occurred around 4:20 p.m."It is going to affect our overall sales for the month, because Thursday is our busiest night since we are near all the clubs," said George Moumouris, owner.Once customers had gone, he and his staff turned to pricing inventory near the windows, in the sunlight. Club Monaco, Roots, Gap and Guess had also closed nearby, he said, forcing shoppers onto the street.At Langton Salon & Spa, in the city's Design District, coowner Robert Tangton said, "I lost my late afternoon business, so that means I will have to worklate Friday night to make up the last business." He added that within minutes, customers had called to cancel their appointments. The outage also forcedthe closure of malls across the city, including Square One and the Eaton Center. The Promenade Shopping Center, in the suburb of Thornhill, left a message on its main number, informing customers, "Please note that the Promenade is closed tonight due to a major power outage."It was disruptive to areas with power, as well. Halston designer Bradley Bayou said from Los Angeles that, "It abruptly put an end to our business for the day. We have three people in our Los Angeles office and all were on the phone withthe New York office. I was on the phone with my design assistant and she panicked when the lights went off. I had to fill her in on what was going on from what I could read on the internet."Barbara Kramer, co-founder of Designers & Agents said she was waiting for a fax from New York, and was wondering where it was when she heard about thepower outage. "Our office in New York is closed," she said. "I can't reach anybody, so I haven't been to do any follow up. In general, it's a concern and frustration. If we don't get the ball back up and going by tomorrow, it willhave a whole different impact."Naturally, there were comical repercussions as well. Morgan Gilman, an administrative assistant at Juicy Couture, was trying to reach his publicistat Harrison and Schriftman in New York for several hours. "We thought they were just ignoring us," he said. "We finally just called their Los Angeles office."As for the overall impact, Frank Badillo, economist with Retail Forward said: "It happened at the end of the day, which could minimize the economic impact and in the scope of a month's worth of economic activity, it could just be a blip."But Badillo noted, with consumers already under a lot of stress from the threat of terrorism,"people can still be a little jittery with these kind of [occurrences] and that reinforces the bias a lot of people have about being cautious – something that is not good for the economy, consumer spending and retail sales."The Thursday blackout was at least on par with the Aug. 11, 1996 outage in the West when similar circumstances caused an outage affecting people in nine states. A blackout in New York City in 1977 lasted for 25 hours.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus