It was a crisis of light, and of darkness—the kind of event that brings out the best and the worst in people. Certainly the 1965 blackout could never happen again, or so New Yorkers had thought. But something very much like it struck Wednesday the 13th, only this time it was frighteningly different. Through the long, sweaty night and most of the following day, the nation's largest city was powerless, lacking both the electricity on which it depends so heavily and any means to stop a marauding minority of poor blacks and Hispanics who, in severe contrast to 1965, went on a rampage, the first since the hot summer riots of the 1960s. They set hundreds of fires and looted thousands of stores, illuminating in a perverse way twelve years of change in the character of the city, and perhaps of the country.
For a short while after the lights flickered out, most New Yorkers refused to believe that a crisis was at hand and gamely carried on. Broadway actors performed under the uncertain beams of flashlights held by stagehands; the nude cast of Oh! Calcutta!, unable to grope to their dressing rooms, borrowed clothes from members of the audience and went home in cabs. Waiters at Manhattan restaurants served patrons by candlelight. Buses were delayed only slightly by darkened traffic lights. Garbage trucks whined as usual on their nightly rounds. Mayor Abraham Beame, assuming, like many citizens, that a fuse had blown, ad-libbed a quip during a campaign speech at the Co-op City Traditional Synagogue in The Bronx. "See," he said. "This is what you get for not paying your bills."
Gradually, however, the realization took over that the unthinkable had happened: at 9:34 on one of the summer's most sweltering nights, air conditioners, elevators, subways, lights, water pumps —all the electric sinews of a great modern city—had stopped. They would not work again for as long as 25 hours. The blackout was far smaller than that of 1965—9 million people lost electricity in New York and the northern suburbs, v. 25 million people in eight states and two Canadian provinces twelve years ago. But the effects were nationwide. TV networks stopped broadcasting for several minutes. The flow of teletyped news from the A.P. and U.P.I, was interrupted, then limped along under jury rigs (see THE PRESS). Wall Street's banks, brokerages, and stock and commodities exchanges shut down for a day.
Beame declared a state of emergency in New York. The city sent extra policemen and fire fighters to the ghettos, portable generators to hospitals, and set up banks of operators to handle citizens' calls for help. But His Honor, who at 71 is running hard for a second term, also began searching for someone to blame. Without bothering to wait for the verdict of investigations ordered by himself, Governor Hugh Carey and President Carter, the mayor quickly zeroed in on Consolidated Edison Co., the company that New Yorkers love to hate (see ECONOMY & BUSINESS). Declared Beanie: "Con Ed's performance is, at the very best, gross negligence—and, at the worst, far more serious." Responded Con Ed Chairman Charles Luce: "It's a little like saying, 'We'll have a fair trial before we hang the defendant.' "