Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

A famous New York City blackout begins a long night and a strange encounter. 

by Kelly • More.com Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

On the chilly fall evening of November 9, 1965, a bright, full moon in a cloudless sky shone down on the streets of New York City. Workers on Wall Street poured out of the myriad office buildings and headed toward the subways and bus stations on their way home.

Most left work at 5 p.m. and soon were down the subway stairs, through the turnstiles and boarding the trains. The IRT line picked up riders at the Wall Street Station, and then headed under the East River toward Brooklyn. 

At 5:27 p.m., the train suddenly stopped just as it went under the East River, and the lights went out. Down in the caverns of the city subway, it was pitch black. The subway cars were overcrowded as usual. People routinely put up with cramming because of the relatively short ride. Every seat was occupied, and double rows of standers held onto high bars or onto poles by the entrance doors in the cars. 

Sighs were heard and the impatient shuffling of feet. There were no announcements explaining why the lights were out or why the train had stopped. The passengers began to sing songs to pass the time. A few arguments broke out. It was hard to breathe without circulating air and with so many bodies. After a while, the conductor and driver walked along the catwalk with flashlights, asking for patience until the situation was made clear. The stuffiness in the train was becoming oppressive. 

An hour passed and no news. Passengers thought the problem was with their particular train. Some started chatting to calm nerves and pass time. However, several riders could not really take the tension and began smoking in the now sweltering cars. It was hard to breathe as it was. Now the smoke was choking the other riders. The majority overruled, and the smokers put out their butts.

Two, three, four hours passed. Conditions were critical with some feeling too unnerved, some feeling ill. There were arguments and testiness as the passengers sat and stood in the dark, literally, uninformed of the problem. Then, after four hours stuck under the East River in a dark tunnel, there was some change. 

City firefighters descended onto the tracks and began evacuating the train. They guided those stranded riders to pass to the back of the train holding hands in a human chain, through all the subway cars and out the last car. There, three firefighters helped each rider down from the train and up onto the two-foot catwalk to head back to the Manhattan side station to an escape hatch in the street. With big spotlights, the firefighters helped each passenger climb up the steep escape ladder to the street exit that led out near Wall Street and Water Street that was actually right by a big firehouse and finally out onto the dark street. 

Still thinking the problem was with the one train, some passengers were anticipating TV cameras and comfort. When my husband surfaced, a firefighter asked him “Where do you live?”

“Brooklyn,” replied Don. 

“Well, you have to walk up to the Manhattan Bridge and cross over to Brooklyn.” The Manhattan Bridge is by Chinatown. He was on Wall Street a few miles uptown. 

“What!,” said Don. “I was expecting coffee and a donut from the Red Cross.” 

“No buddy. The whole city has been blacked out since 5:27 p.m.” 

Don got on the train at 5:15 p.m. If only he missed that fateful train!

Well, at least the mystery was over. Now the long trek home to Flatbush began. A young girl of about 18 or 19 years old latched on to Don. She was very scared and only knew her stop, Columbus Circle. She was totally lost. 

They walked along to the Manhattan Bridge, along with throngs of others stranded in downtown New York City. Along the way, they noted many pubs and bars lit by candles with many merry makers making a party of the dilemma. Bars were probably giving drinks free, as the ice was melting and cash registers not working.

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