What Went Wrong: It Was a Blip on the Screen That Turned into a Monster, Leaving 50 Million Americans Powerless. the Inside Story of a Sleepless Night

By Hirsh, Michael; Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, August 25, 2003 | Go to article overview
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What Went Wrong: It Was a Blip on the Screen That Turned into a Monster, Leaving 50 Million Americans Powerless. the Inside Story of a Sleepless Night


Hirsh, Michael, Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Michael Hirsh and Daniel Klaidman

Thursday, August 14, began as a typical late-summer day: hot, lazy and inconsequential. Up near Albany, Steve Swan was working as shift supervisor at the New York Independent System Operator, the nerve center of the state's power grid. Because of all the air conditioners in use around the region, the grid was carrying a heavy load that day. But it was nothing special for August. In fact, most of the East and Midwest was operating only at about 75 percent of capacity; in past summers, power systems in the region have used more capacity on hotter days without incident. Hunkered down at their terminals, the electrical engineers and other "utility geeks" know that their job of monitoring power flows isn't very glamorous. "A lot of days we sit there --for hours and it doesn't look like we're doing anything," says one dispatcher. Rarely does the guy standing guard at a utility feel a part of history.

But at 4:06 p.m., ET, something caught Swan's eye on the big screen at the front of the room. He noticed a large amount of power flowing from New York toward Ontario through the transmission lines--underground and overhead cables. That wasn't so unusual. A power plant must have gone down. But seconds later, something happened that he'd never seen be-fore. The 800-megawatt surge reversed course and began hurtling back toward New York, like some giant ectoplasmic monster on a rampage. Emergency sirens began to wail through the facility--klaxons not unlike the sirens from "Star Trek." Just outside the control room, the operator's chief executive, William Museler, was finishing up a budget report when his room went dark. He rushed through the secure doors into the control room, where what he saw remind-ed him of a "science-fiction movie," he recalled to NEWSWEEK. People were standing up in stunned silence as they gazed at the power board. Normally, there would be a couple of illuminated red lines represent-ing downed transmission lines. But now most of the board was flashing. "This is the big one," said one dispatcher.

Generators all over had shut down to ward off the surging megawatt monster, which could overload and burn them out. "No one had ever seen this before, and it happened instantaneously," said Museler, who had lived through Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which took down 750,000 customers. His heart sinking, he asked one of his employees, "Find out if New York City has gone dark." It had. Museler says he thought to himself: "This is my worst nightmare."

He wasn't alone. Faster than most humans could respond, power grids across the region began "islanding" themselves, disconnecting automatically from the overloaded system. Generators clicked off in a cascade of shutdowns that darkened New York, Pennsylvania, the Midwest rust belt and much of Ontario. In seconds, North America had suffered the worst blackout in its history. In about nine seconds, 61,800 megawatts were lost, and as many as 50 million people were abruptly left without power. Fortunately, it was still daylight. In Michigan and Ohio, the governors called out the National Guard to distribute water; the troops rolled out trucks known as water buffaloes to provide fluids at airports and public parks (two gallons per person and you had to bring your own container). Agriculture specialists worked the phones, trying to get generators to farmers to enable them to milk their cows. Other officials called hospitals to see if they needed more diesel fuel to run their emergency power engines. Gas lines spilled out onto highways, snarling traffic. "It's like Mad Max out here," said one Detroit resident.

New York City simply shut down all at once. At 4:09 p.m., three minutes after Swan first noticed something was wrong, a rush-hour-packed subway car carrying Richard Warren, an investment banker hoping for an early weekend, lurched to a stop. The lights soon went out, and the August heat grew overwhelming.

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