NEW YORK, NY — At 9:27 P.M. on July 13, 1977, the lights went out in New York City. To be clear: All the lights went out, along with all publicly generated electricity, in all five boroughs.
Two random lightning bolts struck two separate power stations within a short time of one another, and the system collapsed. So too, it seemed, did any semblance of civilization, at least until daybreak.
The darkest night fell particularly hard during this, New York’s darkest modern period.
Heading into the deep swelter season of 1977, America’s largest metropolis teetered on bankruptcy, violent street crime loomed as a daily fact of life, and a random serial shooter nicknamed “The .44-Caliber Killer” had recently identified himself as the “Son of Sam.” Pulling the plug on Gotham’s power grid, then, ignited a powder keg of pent-up mayhem.
Subway trains stopped in tunnels, necessitating mass evacuation in total blackness. JFK and LaGuardia Airports shut down on the spot. Traffic lights went dark. In the poorest neighborhoods especially, chaos reigned.
Arsonists set 1,037 blazes requiring Fire Department attention. At one point, two entire blocks of Broadway in Brooklyn’s now fashionable Bushwick burned as a single inferno. By daybreak, 45 stores on Broadway had been torched, and 134 total had been picked clean by marauders.
Throughout the city, rampagers stormed and emptied 1,616 businesses. Berserk melees then broke out among the scavengers. As the New York Post put it, “Even the looters were being mugged.”
The largest mass arrest in NYC history resulted, with 3,776 suspects taken into custody over the course of just a few hours. Due to sheer volume, arrestees were cramped into precinct basements, closets, and other makeshift holding cells. More than 550 police officers sustained injuries.
Financial estimates placed the damage at $300 million, which would be $1.3 billion today.
Consolidated Edison, New York’s power company, began getting neighborhoods back on the grid at 7 A.M. the next morning, but the city wouldn’t be fully restored until 10:30 P.M. that night.
In assessing the 25-hour crisis, Con Ed pinned the blame on an “act of God.” New York Mayor Abe Beame raged that gross negligence on the company’s part was the real culprit. Mayoral candidate Ed Koch criticized Beame and his administration for not calling out the National Guard. That November, Koch won the first of his three terms as head of the city.
All this contrasted harshly with New York’s 1965 blackout, an event that stretched beyond the city into seven states and two Canadian provinces, affecting 25 million residents total. In ’65, New York reported its lowest number of crimes on any single night since records had begun being kept. The city’s total looting incidents numbered five.
Similarly, a 2003 blackout that shut down multiple states and provinces generated no spikes in crime. New York City residents largely treated that event as a grand-scale public party, with restaurants giving away free food and stores handing out free ice cream. The only fires reported in 2003 resulted from mishaps involving candles that were lit to provide illumination.
The 1977 NYC blackout, then, stands as a snapshot of an urban society pushed from mass suffering to pandemic insanity.
Forty years later, New York City is almost unrecognizably different, but 2017’s reported “Summer of Hell” for commuters on the city’s overcrowded, broken down, chronically late mass-transit system does seem to harken back to a nastier time. Here’s hoping nobody turns out the lights.
Main photo: PBS news video/YouTube [screenshot]