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Though the jury was still out, the trouble apparently began when lightning struck not only twice but several times, knocking out crucial high-voltage lines feeding in from north of the city. This loss of power had a cascading effect that brought down the city's whole electric system.
Most New Yorkers, from silk-stocking districts to scabrous ghettos, responded with neighborliness and even bravery. But what shocked the city, and much of the world, was that tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics poured from their tenements and barrios—in 16 areas—to produce an orgy of looting. In Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto, in Manhattan's Harlem, in the South Bronx, the violence and plundering approached the levels of the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The cry echoed through the ghettos: "It's Christmastime, it's Christmastime!" But to Abe Beame, and countless other New Yorkers of all races, it was "a night of terror."
Roving bands of determined men, women and even little children wrenched steel shutters and grilles from storefronts with crowbars, shattered plate-glass windows, scooped up everything they could carry, and destroyed what they could not. First they went for clothing, TV sets, jewelry, liquor; when that was cleaned out, they picked up food, furniture and drugs. Said Frank Ross, a black police officer in Bedford-Stuyvesant: "It's like a fever struck them. They were out there with trucks, vans, trailers, everything that could roll."
Looters looked on anything movable as desirable boodle. Police caught one man in Bedford-Stuyvesant with 300 sink stoppers and another with a case of clothespins. Two young boys were spotted carrying away an end table. "Where'd you get that thing?" a cop shouted. "My momma give it to me—you can have it," said one of the kids as they dropped their loot and dashed into a crowd that was happily watching a blazing furniture store.
At Hearn's department store in Brooklyn, youths stripped clothing from window mannequins, broke their limbs and scattered them on the floor. Said Miguel Ten, a Viet Nam veteran who stood guarding Arnet's Children's Wear store: "This reminds me of Pleiku in 1966. There was a war out here. And the mannequins remind me of the dead people I saw in Nam without legs and arms."
At the Ace Pontiac showroom in The Bronx, looters smashed through a steel door and stole 50 new cars, valued at $250,000; they put the ignition wires together and drove off. Young men roamed East 14th Street in Manhattan, snatching women's purses. Adults toted shopping bags stuffed with steaks and roasts from a meat market on 125th Street in Harlem. At an appliance store on 105th Street, two boys about ten years old staggered along with a TV set, while a woman strolled by with three radios. "It's the night of the animals," said Police Sergeant Robert Murphy, who wore a Day-Glo blue riot helmet. "You grab four or five, and a hundred take their place. We come to a scene, and people who aren't looting whistle to warn the others. All we can do is chase people away from a store, and they just run to the next block, to the next store."