Blackout Panic Hits New York; Havoc Wreaked by the Biggest Power Cut in History

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THE biggest power cut in American history rolled across a vast swath of the northern United States and southern Canada yesterday, driving millions of people outdoors into stifling rush hour streets.

As nuclear power plants were shut down in four states, President Bush ruled out terrorism. But the blackout set off finger pointing on both sides of the border.

The New York Independent System Operator, which monitors electricity usage, said it detected a fault west of the Ontario power system at 4:11pm local time (21:11 BST). It did not give details.

At one point, Canadian authorities said it appeared lightning had struck a power plant on the US side in the Niagara Falls region, triggering power cuts that spread over 9,300 square miles. But US officials quickly disputed that.

The blackouts engulfed most of New York state and parts of New England, and spread west to Ohio and Michigan.

In Toronto, Canada's largest city, workers fled buildings when the power went off. There were also cuts in the capital Ottawa.

Power began to come back as evening wore on, but officials said full restoration would take much longer. Officials in Detroit urged people to stay at home during the night, and some communities declared curfews.

By midnight, New York authorities had electricity back on in parts of the Bronx, Westchester County and Long Island. About half of the one million homes and businesses that lost power in New Jersey had it back.

About 50 million people were affected.

New Yorkers scrambled down endless stairways in skyscrapers where lifts stopped working, and some underground commuters were stuck on trains for several hours before being evacuated.

In the city that took the brunt of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, people filed into the streets with little fuss and looked for ways to get home.

"I am trying to keep calm," said Aaron David, 27, who works at the United Nations. "But I was here for 9-11. This doesn't happen every day."

Both New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency.

As darkness fell, city dwellers turned to candles and flashlights as scattered parts of the electrical grid came back on. People gobbled ice cream from street vendors before it melted, and knocked back beers before they got warm. Others gathered around battery-operated radios for updates.

Traffic lights were out in many major cities, creating havoc at the beginning of rush hour. …