New Yorkers face new emergency
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of New Yorkers fled into the streets after a power outage turned out the lights and shut down air conditioning and elevator service across the city just after 4 p.m. Thursday.
The massive number of pedestrians clogged streets already snarled by vehicles struggling to maneuver without traffic signals.
Police and volunteers were on street corners throughout the city directing traffic. Emergency officials urged motorists to stay off the roads.
It was slow going for the walkers, with all the city's subways and 35 Long Island Railroad trains paralyzed by the blackout. A railroad spokesman said passengers were evacuated from 15 trains, including two stranded in the East River tunnel.
He also said 1,000 passengers on one of the trains in the tunnel were evacuated by diesel locomotive. The spokesman described the situation as calm and said there were no medical emergencies.
The fire department said it was nearly overwhelmed by phone calls reporting people trapped on elevators and subways.
At 52nd Street and 7th Avenue, scores of passengers filed out of an exit after being trapped in subway cars underground. Officials said similar scenes were playing out as countless numbers of passengers were led from subway stations in all five boroughs.
All this happened on possibly the hottest day of the year for the city with temperatures in the 90s.
At least one woman told CNN that she stopped to buy more comfortable shoes after walking 60 blocks.
Video shot from overhead showed a sea of people trying to reach the ferries that would carry them away from the island of Manhattan. Emergency officials were trying to expedite transport of homebound commuters from New York City by ferry across the Hudson River.
Streams of people could also be seen trekking across the Brooklyn Bridge. All inbound lanes on bridges were shut to traffic.
Getting cash suddenly became impossible when all ATM machines were shut down by the outage.
All bridges connecting Manhattan to other New York City boroughs and suburbs were open Thursday evening, and vehicle traffic resumed in the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels to New Jersey and the Midtown Tunnel to Long Island, the Port Authority said.
But traffic was restricted to one lane in each direction in the two tunnels to New Jersey and bus traffic only was permitted on the inbound side of the Lincoln Tunnel, a spokesman said.
The backup on the New York side of the Lincoln Tunnel amounted to gridlock, according to people who could see it.
Some of the city's hospitals were left in the dark and others were treating patients with help from emergency generators.
Saint Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village was without power as was Harlem Hospital, which reported being overloaded with patients. Officials at New York University and Beth Israel hospitals said doctors there completed operations without power.
Bellevue Hospital was running on emergency power, as was City Hall.
Without power, few if any television or radios were playing in the city, and some people said their cell phones were not working.
But officials quickly took to the airwaves to reassure people the blackout appeared to be a naturally occurring event, not an act of terrorism.
A spokeswoman for Canada's Ministry of National Defense Thursday blamed the outages on a lightning strike in the Niagara region on the U.S. side of the border. "It caused a cascading power failure affecting 9,300 square miles," said navy Lt. Diane Grover.
The Niagara-Mohawk power grid supplies power to New York and stretches into Canada.
About two hours after the blackout began, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that power was slowly being restored and he warned the process would take "hours, not minutes."
He urged residents to be careful on their way home.
"It is very hot out there. The water supply is safe and you should drink a lot of water. You should keep your refrigerator doors closed. You should open your windows," he advised.
Shelters were being set up overnight for those people who have no way to get home, he said.
He also said power could be more easily restored if residents turned off all electrical appliances, especially their air conditioners.
"As the power comes back, Con Ed and the other power companies will have a very difficult time if the demand is 100 percent. So by turning off your air conditioners you will in fact help yourself get air conditioning a lot quicker," the mayor promised.
He said early reports of a fire at a Con Ed substation on 14th Street was not a fire, but rather naturally occurring smoke, from smokestacks, that results from a power shutdown.
Bloomberg also praised how people were handling the situation.
"With a lot of luck, later on this evening we will look back on this and say, 'Where were you when the lights went out?' but nobody will have gotten hurt," Bloomberg said.
The mayor also mobilized 40,000 police officers and the entire fire department for evening duty Thursday.
Frank McCarton, New York's deputy commissioner of emergency services, told CNN emergency crews had been well-prepared for such an emergency: "We dealt with 9/11. We are prepared for anything that can affect us. We are New York City."
Shows on Broadway were canceled, as was a game between Mets and the Giants. The New York Stock Exchange announced plans to open on schedule Friday, using emergency power, if necessary.
All three New York area airports -- JFK, Newark and LaGuardia -- were operating fully by 7 p.m. after shutting down temporarily, the Port Authority said.
But operations were scarcely back to normal. "Expect extended flight delays and long wait times," a United Airlines spokesman told CNN.
All Amtrak trains to and from the New York City area have been stopped, said spokesman Marc Magliari.
Gov. George Pataki declared a state of emergency for the entire state and deploy additional state police, but agreed with other state and federal officials that terrorism was not involved in the massive blackouts.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, was meeting with her 50 interns when the lights went out. "Very calmly, we went out to the sidewalk in front of our office and continued our discussion."
But, she told CNN on a cellular phone as she was driven slowly toward her home in Chappaqua in Westchester County, the possibility that it was a terrorist attack crossed her mind. "It had to cross anybody's," she said. "Especially those of us in New York."