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CNN BREAKING NEWS

New York City Caught in Black-Out.

Aired August 14, 2003 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, ANCHOR: Here in the CNN center in Atlanta. I'm Kyra Phillips. Thanks for sticking with us since 4 Eastern, when this story started developing.
And I'm going to toss it off to my co-worker, Wolf Blitzer, also been working on this story throughout the day. He's on the streets of New York. He's going to take it from here -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Kyra.

It's almost -- under three hours since the power went off, not only here in New York City but around the Northeastern corridor of the United States, as well as Ontario in Canada.

It's been an ugly situation, but at least from my vantage point in New York City people are coping, people are dealing with the situation, with this crisis remarkably well, despite the fact that subways were stopped, people had to escape from the subways. Despite the fact that elevators in high-rise buildings were stopped. There were still plenty of people stuck in elevators.

By all accounts -- by all accounts there was a major power failure along the Niagara Mohawk Power grid, either originating in Canada or perhaps in Michigan, somewhere in the northeast, whether in Canada or in the northeast. They're checking all of that. We're standing by for more details.

There's no indication whatsoever this is anything but a major technical problem. No evidence of any terrorism or anything along those lines.

It's just after 7 p.m. here in New York City on the East Coast. There are some reports that some power is being restored in various parts. But from here, from this vantage point in Manhattan, it doesn't look like power is coming back at least any time soon. We'll continue to watch this situation.

New Yorkers have dealt with this remarkably well. Let's talk to three of them, who are joining me here on the streets of New York City.

Jenny, that's you. Jessica, that's you. And Benode (ph), that's you.

Jenny, tell us your story. You were actually walking and walking and walking, but you have rather uncomfortable shoes. How far did you walk and what did you do?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I walked about 60 blocks across town from midtown. And finally only got to the west side. One of my friends needed to stop and get shoes. So when I went in with her, I realized it was a pretty good idea. Picked up a pair of brand new red Kangaroos and walked the rest of the 40 blocks home.

BLITZER: Let's show, if you could pan down and show the new shoes. What, were you very fashionable, you were wearing fancy shoes? Was that it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was not wearing fancy shoes. But not comfortable enough shoes. And the chance to buy a pair of red sneakers presented itself. And I splurged.

BLITZER: All right, and Jenny, you've been walking as well, 60 blocks as well?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes we are.

BLITZER: Together? Did you have to walk...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I actually decided to change into my workout outfit before I left work, because I knew I'd have a long walk.

BLITZER: What was going through your mind? Were you in a building at the time? What were you thinking?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were in a building. We were on the eighth floor of a building. The power went out. The fire alarms went on. Nobody really knew what was going on. We all kind of gathered and decided to leave.

BLITZER: Were people calm? Were people nervous? Were people scared? Did you think, God forbid, we don't know what's happening?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People were fairly calm. We looked out the windows and noticed that the power was out in the whole area. So we knew that it wasn't just our building. We saw people gathering outside also.

BLITZER: But everybody was pretty helpful?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very helpful, very calm.

BLITZER: And nobody panicked or anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No panic. New Yorkers were actually helping each other with the traffic.

BLITZER: This notion that New Yorkers are not friendly is a big lie, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a total lie.

BLITZER: Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chicago.

BLITZER: How long have you lived in New York?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A year.

BLITZER: One year. So this has been a nice surprise for you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

BLITZER: Well, how many more blocks do you have to go?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Only about six or seven. I'm almost home.

BLITZER: You're almost home. All right. Stand by. I want to talk to Benode.

Benode, you have a long way to go. How far have you walked so far and how much further do you have to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I started from the tip of the city. I think it's around 50 to 60 blocks. And I have 50 or 60 left to go.

BLITZER: 50 or 60 blocks left to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I don't know where we are, but yes. Fifty-five blocks left to go.

BLITZER: So where were you when the lights went out?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In my office at the tip of the city downtown. So we didn't know what went on. But when I got down and I learned that half of the east coast was affected I got a little concerned.

BLITZER: Benode, good luck to you. You have a nice walk. It's nice and healthy to walk like this.

There's no doubt that all of this activity here in New York City is clearly happening at a time when there was some heightened concern on nearly the second anniversary of 9/11. But by all accounts, once again, no sign of any terrorism, no sign of anything along those lines. Clearly, some sort of technical malfunction that has caused a lot of these problems.

We're going to continue to monitor what's happening. Certainly as we watch what's happening on the streets of New York City, we want to make sure that we have all of the latest information.

I believe our John King is in Washington who can update us from there -- John.

JOHN WOLF, ANCHOR: Wolf, continue your work on the streets there in New York City. I want to recap quickly for any viewers just joining us at the top of the 7 p.m. hour in Washington. And I should remind them, we are waiting for a news conference from the New York governor George Pataki. We will go there live as soon as he begins that news conference.

We're watching scenes in New York City, by far the biggest city affected by this, a city of more than eight million people. But more than a half dozen U.S. cities and three in Canada affected by this sweeping power blackout today. Our CNN coverage continuing. We are tracking, trying to find out just how this happened.

For more at the moment, Leon Harris in Atlanta.

LEON HARRIS, ANCHOR: Power cut to tens of millions of people in at least half a dozen states and two countries. It's a massive blackout, blanketing large parts of the U.S. and Canada.

Air traffic disrupted at some of the world's busiest airports. People trapped in elevators and subways. It's a tense but calm situation as officials try to figure out just what went wrong.

Updating you at this point, here is what we know right now. At its height the blackout stretched from Canada down through New York and as far west as Ohio and Michigan.

In response, New York Governor George Pataki declared a state of emergency. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says that power is slowly being restored to part is of the region. However, he warns it will be hours before the lights are back on for everyone.

Now, as for the cause of all of this, the Department of Homeland Security says that initial reports indicate it is a power system failure, a natural occurrence and not one borne of terrorism.

A New York state official tells us the blackout is the result of an electrical overload in the giant Niagara Mohawk power grid.

Now, this blackout prompted the FAA to initially order ground stops at all three major New York area airports, as well as Cleveland. The three New York area airports now are back open.

Air traffic control was not the problem. It had backup power. Security screening was the major concern. The machines that the Transportation Security Administration uses to check passengers and their bags runs on electricity that is not hooked up to backup power supplies.

Let's go to CNN's Deborah Feyerick, who is standing by live in the city's Chelsea neighborhood. Deborah, give us a scene of exactly -- Deborah's on the phone, we should advise you, right now. Deborah, give us a sense of what things look like and feel like right now there.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me tell you this. First of all, it began as a trickle, a few people. When the whole thing began, the lights went out, a few people raced down to the street. And then more and more and more people. And we began asking, "What building are you in? What building are you in?" And we realized that it was much larger than just one building. First, post office workers began streaming out of the main post office. Then people from Madison Square Gardens began streaming out of that building. Then up from the subways, people saying that the subways were stuck. And that people were trapped there.

We can tell you now the subways are being evacuated by the MTA, as well as by firefighters, who are trying to evacuate those streets.

This is one of the boroughs of Manhattan. Looks like Brooklyn, the picture that I'm getting here. You can see everybody walking and no cars. We are being told that very few cars are being allowed into New York, though they're trying to get as many cars out of New York as they possibly can. And you can see that there's no distinct traffic pattern.

As the camera moves over, actually, Leon, this it appears is the Manhattan Bridge. And you can see all the people who are streaming over it right now. The cars on the other side trying to get out of Manhattan. And into Brooklyn.

Now, we can tell you that, as we were walking down to get to the location where we are now, there were lines outside of hardware stores. People were trying to buy flashlights and candles. Also, because nobody knew what was going on, a few cars had pulled over and had their engines on, playing the radio, a local station, 1010 Wins. Everybody was circled around to find out what was happening.

And it was like a murmur throughout the street, a buzz with people saying, "Oh, my God, it's hitting Detroit. And Canada." They realized that they were part of something that was much bigger.

There were pictures on air that we saw before, Leon, where people were by a waterway. That runs from Manhattan out to New Jersey. And people just walked down so that they could leave. It was late at the end of the day, about 4:15, when all of this began.

And interestingly, one woman who had had a very bad experience after September 11, raced down the stairs as soon as this happened. Again, the first thing people think of here is, "Do I stay in the building? Or do I leave the building?" So again, this woman, racing out as fast as she could go.

And that's the mood here. People are now just trying to get home and do it as calmly and as carefully as they possibly can.

HARRIS: Just as Mayor Bloomberg reported to us a little while ago in his press briefing. Deborah Feyerick, thanks very much. We'll get back to you in just a bit.

And as Deborah was reporting there and as we said to you, you heard words coming directly from the mayor's mouth, people out there in New York are being tested once again and they seem to be taking this in stride to some degree. People are basically, as you can see in these pictures, you don't see signs of any disturbances or whatever. We have not heard any reports at all of any injuries or any deaths at all related to this blackout, this major blackout, which has pretty much stalled and paralyzed the entire region. We're hoping that news continues to stay positive on that particular note.

Let's hear now how some of the New Yorkers who were there, caught unawares by this blackout, actually reacted to it when it happened.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't know what's going on either. Just kind of -- like all these other people, just looking around, don't know what's going on. Don't know what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel safe?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not right now. I see everything almost panicking. And it's -- wow. It's creepy. I'm getting a flashback from September 11. I don't like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's pretty hectic, actually, getting around and everything. It's crazy. We need to take the subway back to where we came from, and we don't even know if it's going to be running. We don't want to take the bus because it's going to be overcrowded. I don't know. It's pretty harsh.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: As you can see there, people are doing what they have to do to deal with this particular moment.

Let's go down and pick up our coverage out of Washington, John King standing by there -- John.

KING: Leon, thank you very much.

Here in Washington, we're tracking the federal response to all this, trying to get a sense of what the government knows about just how this happened. Our correspondents in the cities affected, of course, getting news as well. Among them our Jeff Greenfield, who joins us from New York.

Jeff, Mayor Bloomberg posed a question this way earlier. I'm going to pose it to you: where were you when the lights went out?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I was at CNN and I assumed that my computer probably had struck. But over the next 15 or 20 seconds, it became clear what was going on.

I am now in fact where I first looked out on Eighth Avenue, which north of 33rd Street is one of the most heavily trafficked avenues in New York. It goes by Penn Station. It goes by Times Square, the crossroads of the world.

And I have to tell you that it's a pleasure to report that it really feels -- not exactly like a celebration, but a sort of combination of a little bit of inconvenience and wonder and amusement.

A lot of people, tons of tourists come up Eighth Avenue. It's one of the major getting on and off points of those double decker red buses that if you've ever toured New York you know. People are getting off, I think some of them may think, well, I guess this happens every day in New York, it's just like Aunt Martha told us.

But other than that, they're lined up outside of liquor stores for ice, for beer. The cops are at every street corner, incredibly patient. The Guardian Angels are taking care of some of the traffic.

I'd say about half the people I'm looking at now who are streaming northward are not New Yorkers, because they are wearing clothes that New Yorkers normally don't wear in terms of colors. And they seem, as I say, they seem a little dazed. They seem a little hot. A cool breeze is coming southward, which is a very blessed event.

One of the things I think that any New Yorker thought about, as soon as he finished thinking about September 11, was what happened here on an August day 26 years ago, in 1977, when a massive power blackout was followed by massive looting, particularly in the African- American neighborhoods. A lot of controversy that the police did not go into those neighborhoods to try to protect the store owners.

It's early but there's not a sense of any kind of anger or even fear. I'd say it's a combination of a holiday and "How the heck am I going to get home?"

One of the sites that I hope we got to capture with our cameras was at 42nd and Eighth Avenue. The Port Authority bus terminal that takes hundreds of thousands of people to New Jersey via bus. There's a convoy of buses lined up. And people are massing in the streets. It looks like a kind of third world picture. Trying to figure out what bus that is and when do they get on it and when does it head to New Jersey?

I think a lot of people are going to be very, very late getting home. Some of us lucky enough to live within 60 blocks are doing it on foot. But it is a kind of -- Mayor Bloomberg was right. There is a remarkable sense of, we can handle this, you know. We'll deal with it.

So now I'd say, John, that for a New Yorker who's lived here and seen some of the best and worst of it, as I have, this is a mildly encouraging response to a major inconvenience -- John.

KING: We'll accept your advice and opinion on that one. Jeff Greenfield, someone who knows the geography and the character of New York City quite well. Jeff, continue on your way and come back to us with anything else you see and learn.

I want to come back here to Washington for a minute as we see these pictures, the four-screen there of cities affected by this power outage today. One question, of course, is how did this happen? Another question is, when will the lights come back on? Helping us keeping track of those and other developments here in Washington, our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The headline is that it happened very fast. We have spoken to a company by the name of Genscape. They monitor the output of power plants. And according to their records, between 4:10 and 4:13 this afternoon eastern time, 21 power plants went down. That's 21 power plants in approximately three minutes' time.

We've been told earlier, ten of those were nuclear power plants. I'm now told by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that in fact, there are nine power plants, nuclear power plants, by their count, that have gone off line.

This is perfectly normal. Because the grid is down, these plants have nowhere to put the power that they're producing. And so they are taken offline. It will take time to put them back up.

There is an organization called the North American Electric Reliability Council. They're the people who sort of take care of the power grid. It is their belief at this point that this started in either Ohio or the Niagara Falls area.

One person with whom I spoke with in the electric industry says it's their belief that this could have happened at a high voltage transmission facility, that voltage there might have been disrupted and that might have been the thing that started this cascade.

Word from all sectors, be it the energy sector or official sectors of the U.S. government, like the Department of Homeland Security, is this is technical in nature. There is absolutely no indication that terrorism was involved in this in any way whatsoever.

One government official telling CNN's Kelli Arena that at this point in time, they have ruled out the worm, this worm that has been affecting some Microsoft operating systems.

But it will be an arduous and slow process to bring this back. I'm told it will be at least hours until full power is restored to all the affected areas.

John, back to you.

KING: And Jeanne, we're thankful they don't think this is terrorism but certainly they have quite a challenge on their hand. Everyone will want to know: those affected economically, personally, from a transportation standpoint, how did this happen? Aren't there supposed to be firewalls between these systems?

MESERVE: There are some firewalls, and that's why it didn't go further than it did. They are still going to be doing a lot of detective work to figure out exactly how this started.

As it's explained to me, they start at sort of the outer edges of the blackout and work back and try and find out where things started. I am also told that FEMA and other parts of DHS are on full alert, all their personnel on standby. They've done inventories of their warehouses to find out where things are, like generators and ice so they can deploy those. But they say at this point in time they have had no requests for assistance from any of the states that are affected -- John.

KING: Jeanne Meserve, our homeland security correspondent. Among those tracking the response here in Washington, you see live pictures there from WCBS. Still daylight in New York City. Wolf Blitzer down on the streets -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, John.

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