The city is at a standstill, but at least we can see stars above Manhattan

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The Independent US

Most of us in Manhattan had some reason to feel lucky. At least we weren't in a subway train when the lights went out.

Most of us in Manhattan had some reason to feel lucky. At least we weren't in a subway train when the lights went out.

Thousands of scared commuters had to be escorted from the front end of trains stuck between stations and encouraged to walk along darkened rail tracks where the rats normally have sole residence. Even on the platforms they could not see where to go in the dark. Some pushed up street grates to get to the street.

At least we weren't at the airports trying to catch a plane. Mary McMullen, a woman I met waiting in line for a bus to La Guardia that never came, explained that she should have been flying to Tampa, Florida. "I think I will be sleeping at the airport tonight,'' she said with resignation.

But there was something almost magical: looking past the dark shadow of the Empire State Building after nightfall, for the first time any of us could remember, we could see stars above Manhattan.

For the first few hours of the great blackout, the novelty of a city brought to a standstill almost outweighed the multiple inconveniences. The avenues were thronging with people walking slowly, sitting in groups, laughing and chatting about their predicament. Suddenly, New Yorkers were talking to one another, comparing stories. Where were you when the lights went out?

But the challenges soon turned to frustration and weariness. Commuters from the outer boroughs were forced to walk for hours to get home. Crowds gathered at the main bus stops, everyone just hoping that before midnight at least, they would get a seat. Outside Grand Central Station, which was sealed shut, tempers began to fray.

Everyone had questions for everyone. "Is there anything open?'' an African-American woman urgently asked me as darkness began to fall. "Can I at least get a beer from somewhere?'' For me, my urgent mission was to find candles. We had none in the apartment, not even a torch. How could we have been so ill-prepared? I begged for an hour until a deli owner permitted me to take a few of hers. She charged me a dollar, but I would have paid $20.

Only the occasional great winter storm has had a comparable effect on the city, when the avenues empty of cars and human traffic and interaction take over. Peering from our 10th-floor window at midnight, we saw Manhattan like never before. Small groups were sitting on the sidewalks, candles flickering between them. Short beams of light from torches skittered across the pavement. The windows of the high-rise buildings opposite were either dark or glowing palely from candles and camping lights inside.

There was one other occasion in recent memory when the city came undone like this. That was, of course,9/11.

Faint echoes of that tragedy lingered in our minds through the evening. The scenes on the streets were much the same. Pedestrians streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge on the first leg of their long walks home. Everyone dialling and redialling their cellphones, hoping to reach home and loved ones and finding there was no way to get through. People huddling around anyone with a radio, hungry for news of what exactly had happened and when the power might return.

Those with longer memories recalled the summer of 1977 in New York Citywhen repeated night-time blackouts were accompanied by violence and widespread looting. Surely they would do whatever they could to put the power back on before nightfall. The city was steaming hot and people would lose their tempers. From our window, we watched police helicopters circling over our building, casting searchlights on the streets below. But the trouble did not come. New York, it seems, is a different sort of place from 25 years ago.

Everyone marvelled at how dependent we are on electricity. A friend, Veronika, came to our place. "I could not stay at home alone," she said. "What am I meant to do? I can't read, I can't watch television, I can't cook, I can't go on the computer.''

All would be working fine in the morning, we told ourselves. The only thing to do was go to bed. Not so. Still there was no power and the forecast promised more high humidity and temperatures in the mid-nineties. And we had more problems to deal with. The water had stopped running. Even the lavatories were out of bounds. The telephone was still dead and our mobile phones, which had been working intermittently on Thursday evening, were now useless.

Little by little we learnt how the city was ceasing to function. The Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, told us on the radio to stay away from the beaches - the sewage plants had been shut down and waste was spilling into the sea.

But common sense was the order of the day. Deli owners brought their fruit and vegetables on to the pavements and sold them off for a quarter of the price. A middle-aged man, his shirt soaked, was directing traffic on Park Avenue. With wildly exaggerated gestures he kept the flow of cars and pedestrians moving, furiously blowing into a dog-whistle at anyone who dared to ignore him. As morning became early afternoon yesterday, the word on our tiny radio was that the power was coming back. But not in our neighbourhood. And the frustrations continued to mount. We were running out of cash and the bank dispensers were down. Still there was no water to wash in or flush the lavatory. I needed to leave the city but my car was low on petrol.

But there was good news. The fear of everyone when the lights first went out at 4.14pm on Thursday - that a terrorist attack was unfolding - seems unfounded. Instead, this extraordinary urban drama was the fault only of a Third World power grid in a supposedly First World country. Perhaps someone will do something about it to avoid a repeat.