New York City Blackout: Power Restored But Questions Remain

With power restored in the heart of Manhattan after Saturday's blackout cut electricity to nearly a quarter-million people, attention Sunday turned to why it happened and what can be done to prevent another outage.

A man makes his way through a dark Times Square during a power outage on Saturday.
A man makes his way through a dark Times Square during a power outage on Saturday.
(AP/Michael Owens)
By Matthew Chayes and Michael O'Keeffe

With power restored in the heart of Manhattan after Saturday's blackout cut electricity to nearly a quarter-million people, attention Sunday turned to why it happened and what can be done to prevent another outage.

Con Edison had few answers.

A preliminary investigation by the utility showed that portions of a large substation on the West Side at 49th Street that feeds electricity to the streets and structures failed Saturday night, officials with the utility said Sunday. Consequently, that substation lost the ability to feed electricity for more than 40 blocks, the utility said. The resulting outage knocked out signal power to six subway lines, leaving trains stalled on tracks and forcing the evacuation of nearly 3,000 riders.

Above ground, the blackout, which officials said began at about 6:47 p.m., forced the cancellation of 26 Broadway shows, sending patrons into darkened Theater District streets. Once there, they joined thousands of others along thoroughfares where knocked-out traffic lights made driving a slow-moving challenge. In multistory buildings, elevators stopped working, leaving passengers stuck.

Officials Sunday ruled out a cyber attack or high demand for electricity as causes. In a statement, Con Ed said it "sincerely regrets the power disruption to our customers on the west side of Manhattan and will be conducting a diligent and vigorous investigation to determine the root cause of the incident."

The power was restored at about midnight, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.

Cuomo directed the state's Department of Public Service to investigate the outage.

"While fortunately no injuries occurred as a result of this incident, the fact that it happened at all is unacceptable," Cuomo said in a statement before power was fully restored.

Electricity went out for about 72,000 customers, said spokeswoman Anne Marie Corbalis, noting there are about three electricity users for each ratepayer, on average.

At an unrelated news conference Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer called on the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate Con Ed.

Mayor Bill de Blasio cut short a presidential campaign trip in Iowa and returned to the city Sunday.

"We are going to hold Con Ed's feet to the fire," de Blasio said at an afternoon news conference in Manhattan.

In a CNN interview Sunday morning, the mayor defended his absence and said his administration would examine what caused the outage, with the aim of averting a future recurrence

"When you're a mayor, or a governor, you're going to travel for a variety of reasons," de Blasio said. "The important thing is to have your hand on the wheel, make sure things are moving effectively and communicate with people. Even from where I was, I was able to do that right away."

Consolidated Edison Company of New York president Tim Cawley said a preliminary report on the blackout is expected in the coming weeks. Redundancies built into the substation's operation, and designed to prevent an outage in the event of a failure, didn't work, Cawley said.

"We're going to have to dig deep to understand not withstanding all of those built-in backups," Cawley said. "This event sort of got past that and resulted in the large outage at the West Side station."

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subways, the outage cut power to the signals on six train lines running under Sixth and Eighth avenues -- the A, C, E and D, F, M -- and shuttered the lights at 11 midtown stations. It took about an hour to evacuate 2,875 subway riders from five trains that were stalled on the tracks, MTA Transit president Andy Byford said.

The NYPD had to pull resources from across the five boroughs and brought in a car from each precinct, Commissioner James O'Neill said.

There were no reports of injuries or fatalities, said Deanne Criswell, commissioner of the city's Emergency Management Department.

The FDNY reported Sunday having received 701 calls to 911 from 7:30 p.m. Saturday to 12:15 a.m. Sunday from people reporting fires, being stuck in elevators and other issues. FDNY Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro said the department answered calls for 400 stuck elevators.

St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital operated during the outage using an emergency generator but had no air conditioning, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said. Jennifer Lopez's concert at Madison Square Garden was postponed and rescheduled for Monday at 8 p.m., the Garden said in a news release, with original tickets honored.

The canceled Broadway shows included such popular musicals as "Hamilton," "Dear Evan Hansen" and "Wicked." All shows were expected to proceed Sunday, according to a statement from the Broadway League.

Janet Lambert, 49, and her daughter, who were visiting from Pasadena, California, for a dance conference, were supposed to go on a tour of Radio City Music Hall on Saturday. The blackout canceled the tour and Lambert said she had third-row tickets for Saturday night's canceled performance of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"I had bought tickets to this and now I'm crying," she said half-jokingly as she waited in line for Sunday's showing of the play. "It was third row and we were really looking forward to it."

Lambert's luck turned a bit, as she did get tickets for Sunday's show, albeit with a view blocked by the orchestra.

Holly Mason, 67, of Charlotte, North Carolina was in town for a conference and had tickets to Saturday night's showing of "King Kong," which was canceled.

"I figured it happens and there is nothing you can do," she said. "It is a bit bad because it's closing."

With Ivan Pereira and Vin Barone

(c)2019 Newsday

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.