Recalling the 2003 blackout: 20 years since North America’s largest power outage

By CityNews Staff

It was a Thursday in August like so many others – stiflingly hot, incredibly busy, and completely ordinary.

But it all changed at exactly 4:09 p.m. on August 14, 2003, when time literally stopped for 50 million people across Ontario and parts of the U.S.

It began with a tree hitting a transmission line in Ohio. It ended with a large part of the Eastern Seaboard in darkness.

In Toronto, the effects of the blackout were immediate and stunning. Traffic lights blinked out at the height of rush hour, as brakes screeched cars to a sudden and unexpected stop. Good Samaritans jumped into the middle of it all, trying to direct traffic.

The subway came to a grinding halt in the tunnels, leaving thousands sweating and stranded.

And everyone was literally in the dark about what happened.

How long would it last? And why did the hydro go out? It would be many months before experts could reassemble the failures both human and machine-related that led to the largest power failure in North American history.

When it became apparent the lights weren’t going to return anytime soon, an eerie darkness slowly settled over Toronto.

Many workers were forced to stay downtown or walk for miles in the hot humid weather, as temperatures reached into the upper 20s and 30s, and the humidity went beyond that.

Those lucky enough to be in their cars inched their way through four-way stop intersections, in a ghostly and slow white knuckle drive that saw them having to watch out for shrouded pedestrians and other vehicles in the evening gloom.

But if they hadn’t filled up that morning, they were out of luck. Gas station pumps didn’t work and there was no way to refuel their empty tanks.

Stores ran out of batteries and supplies, as unprepared residents began stocking up on whatever they could find. There were some reports of gouging, but most merchants simply ran out of their goods before the majority could get there.

Food spoiled in fridges and freezers, and there was no way to cook it, except on a barbeque.

Neighbours, many of whom barely knew each other 24 hours before, held block parties under a clear night sky, with stars unobscured by city lights.

When the power finally returned to normal, life here didn’t. Ontario suffered a blackout hangover for a week, with the government initially ordering businesses to stay closed, turn off their signage, and telling employees to stay home.

The CNE failed to open on time over fears there wouldn’t be the electricity to power the rides and the midway.

And residents were forced to keep their air conditioning off in the stifling conditions and conserve every watt until the crisis passed.

Blackout Chronology

A look back at the events that began on August 14, 2003:

12:15pm E.D.T.: A computer glitch shuts down energy-supply monitoring system at the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator in Ohio.

1:31 p.m.: A FirstEnergy Corp. generator in Ohio shuts down. Half an hour later the company’s alarm system also fails.

3:05 p.m.: Trees hit three transmission lines in Ohio, knocking them out of service.

4:06 p.m.: Large-capacity Sammis-Star line falls in Ohio, sending waves of power cascading through the inter-connected eastern network.

4:09 p.m.: Surges of between 2,000 and 4,000 megawatts of electricity rush through New York and Michigan, catching Ontario in between and collapsing the entire power system. Fifty million people are left without electricity. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves declares state of emergency.

4:42 p.m.: Restoration efforts at generating facilities across the province begin. Niagara Island comes up first, last that night was the final Bruce generating unit.

Friday, Aug. 15th:

5:20 a.m.: Most of the province reconnected to the grid, but power supplies unstable.

6:00 a.m.: Lineups at gas stations and grocery stores as people stock up batteries, candles and other supplies. Millions of workers get the day off after Ontario Premier Ernie Eves calls on everyone to save energy by staying home. Joint Canada-U.S. task force to investigate cause of the blackout announced.

Monday, Aug. 18:

Business resumes in Ontario, but government offices remain closed.

Commercial electricity consumers in Ontario asked to operate on about half the electricity they would normally consume.

Friday, Aug. 22:

State of emergency lifted in Ontario, non-essential employees told to head back to work.

Nov. 19. 2003:

Task force releases interim report citing untimely combination of human and equipment failures as cause of blackout. Report places majority of responsibility on shoulders of companies in Ohio.

April 5, 2004:

Final task force report release. Team makes 46 recommendations for averting a future blackout.

Blackout by the numbers

4:09 p.m.: Time on Aug. 14, 2003 that the electricity grid feeding much of the eastern seaboard collapsed.

24,050: Megawatts of electricity coursing through Ontario moments before the blackout.

3: Transmission lines in Ohio knocked out by overgrown trees, starting the cascade of systems failures that knocked out power.

12: Seconds it took for surges of electricity to bounce between New York and Michigan, catching Ontario in the middle before the power went out.

1,200: Megawatts of electricity available after the system collapsed.

1,300: Watts of electricity required to run a dishwasher.

100: Number of power plants knocked offline.

50: Millions of people left in the dark across Ontario, parts of Quebec and eight U.S. states.

136: Miners stuck underground in Sudbury when power went out.

12: Hours that an 87-year-old Hamilton woman was trapped in an elevator after the power went out.

10,000: Batteries sold by Radio Shack the day after the blackout.

90: Minutes people waited at a Northern Ontario Tim Hortons for a cup of coffee the day after the blackout.

2: Dollars per call one Toronto pedestrian was charging stranded citizens to use her cellphone during the blackout.

18.9: Millions of hours of work lost because of the blackout, according to Statistics Canada.

46: Number of recommendations made by the joint Canada-U.S. task force that examined the blackout.

23: Number of recommendations put into place since the final report was released, according to the study’s authors.

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