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Lights Out!

Where were you when the lights went out on August 14, 2003?

Denise Tannler, of Reading, Pennsylvania, and her family were together in Sandusky, Ohio. When the electricity went out, they were stuck three-quarters of the way up the first hill on that city's Magnum roller coaster.

For twenty minutes, the family and others sat on top of the coaster until park employees led the riders down to safety.

In Detroit, Bettie Lloyd spent nearly 19 hours trapped alone in a hot, dark elevator. “I was happy to get out of there,” she said.

Across the border in Canada, 13-year-old Ross Stilborn and friends from his baseball team were stranded at an airport near Toronto. They had raised more than $10,000 to play in a tournament in Italy. Officials had to ground their plane.

Some people found ways to enjoy the blackout. One New York City woman said that without the usual glare from the city's lights, she was able to see the Big Dipper for the first time.

In Detroit, classic-car owners paraded down the city's streets. From the back of a truck, someone sold posters that read, “Where were you when the lights went out?”


The blackout was the largest power outage in North American history. Fifty million people in eight states and two Canadian provinces lost electricity for hours.

Commuter trains stopped running. Airplanes could not take off. Thousands of business owners told workers to go home.

In Cleveland, the power outage shut down all four of the city's major water-pumping stations. That left homes in the region without fresh, running water.

In New York City, 350,000 people were riding the subway system when the power went out. All the trains stopped in their tracks.

As the blackout lasted deep into the hot August night, thousands of New Yorkers slept on the streets and in parks. Their apartments were too hot during the stifling night.

A week after the blackout, government officials and power company experts were still wondering why it occurred. They were also asking another question, “Could it happen again?” Their answer was, “Yes, it could. And it probably will.”

An Old System

The electrical system that powers video games, televisions, air conditioners, stereos, and factories is very old. That system is called the power grid.

The power grid is made up of power lines, transformers, and other equipment designed to move electricity into homes and businesses. When there is a breakdown in the system, the electricity goes off somewhere.

That is what happened on August 14, 2003. For some reason, three power lines in Ohio failed. The blackout rolled through the northeastern United States and parts of Canada. Cities went dark, one after the other. Each city's power failure led to a power blackout in the next city, like falling dominoes.

There are backup systems to help when blackouts occur. No one knows why, but those systems did not work when the outage spread. That is why the United States and Canada formed a special team to try to prevent another big blackout.

What's Next?

Experts say the power companies must fix the way electricity travels through the power grid. These experts want the government and the power companies to spend more money on stronger power lines. The lines should be able to carry 25 percent more electricity.

They also want the government and power companies to use new technologies that will prevent blackouts from spreading.

Unless these changes are made, it is just a matter of time before there is another power outage.