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After 20 years, New Yorkers recall night the lights went out

fire July 12, 1997
Web posted at: 7:28 p.m. EDT (2328 GMT)

From Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist

NEW YORK (CNN) -- For many New Yorkers, the blackout of 1977 is a dark memory.

It started on July 13 about 9 p.m. when lightening knocked out electricity in much of New York City, plunging millions of residents into darkness. Unlike a similar blackout in 1965 that was characterized by calm, the 1977 blackout erupted in chaos -- and terror.

CNN's Cynthia Tornquist reports.
icon 2 min. 24 sec. VXtreme video

Mobs set fires, smashed windows and hauled away food, clothing and appliances. Hardest hit was the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where the rampage continued the next day. Many businesses never recovered. At some stores, employees tried in vain to protect the merchandise.

One of the businesses ransacked during the blackout was the Tom, Dick and Harry shoe store.


"At that time we had iron gates," recalls Michael Alesi, the store's current owner and the son of the owner during the riots. "They must have pulled the gates off with a car. Forget about it. We must have had about a quarter of a million dollars in sneakers stolen from us."

Some 4,500 people were arrested during the riots, and the price tag for the damage was an estimated $61 million.

The blackout hit New York at a dark time in more ways than one. When the lights went out, the city was in the midst of a financial crisis and high unemployment.

Coming not long after President Ford told the city to "Drop Dead," -- in the words of the New York Daily News -- the power outage was a painful blow to a proud city's prestige.

But as bad as things looked in the summer of 1977, New York City bounced back. Some of the same problems exist today. But New York is far stronger than it was 20 years ago.


"If the same kind of stuff were to happen today, I think it would be seen as isolated events. What was different 20 years ago was this tremendous culture of city-hate and self-hate that just permeated the air," said Marshall Berman, a political science professor at City University of New York.

Could a massive blackout hit New York again? Officials aren't making promises. "We have a saying in this business," Charlie Durkin of Con Edison says. "We never say never."

If the city went dark again, most New Yorkers believe a disaster on the scale of 1977 would not be repeated. Twenty years later, New Yorkers might find themselves in the dark, but not necessarily in despair.

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