Kelly Ripa was on location in Queens shooting scenes for her fall sitcom Hope & Faith. Retired maintenance worker Steven Richardson, 59, was being prepped for a liver transplant at a hospital in Detroit. Bob Chiarelli, the may-or of Ottawa, was teeing up on a local golf course. Aretha Franklin was in her hairdresser’s chair in Southfield, Mich., getting a perm. Then, just after 4 p.m. on Aug. 14, the antiquated electrical grid that stretches across the Great Lakes and Northeast came abruptly unplugged, plunging them—and 50 million others—into darkness.
The Blackout of 2003—the largest power outage in American history—will be infamous for the havoc it wrought: gridlock at failed traffic lights, frayed cell-phone networks, shuttered factories and offices that cost the economy at least $6 billion. But it will also be remembered for what it did not cause: no real spike in crime, no rioting in the streets and no favoritism. In Manhattan, Hugh Jackman, who had to walk the 40-odd blocks home from a Broadway hall where he was rehearsing the musical The Boy from Oz to his Greenwich Village apartment, marveled at the spirit of his fellow Gothamites. “Hugh just kept going on and on, saying, ‘My God, New York is so wonderful! They’re such survivors!'” says Oz director Philip McKinley. “‘Everyone takes it in stride!'”
It wasn’t just New Yorkers. In Ottawa, workers at Pure Gelato gave out free treats. In Cleveland, Wal-Mart employees and a hospital lawyer loaded a truck with flashlights, fans and other supplies and headed for the city’s University Hospitals, taking an IOU for it all. In Ann Arbor, Mich., 36-year-old hospital courier Robert Moore ditched his car in heavy traffic, borrowed a bike from a friendly store manager and speed-cycled eight miles to deliver blood platelets to doctors at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, which prevented life-threatening complications for a cancer patient. He shrugged it off: “I was just doing my part.”
Of course, the news wasn’t all good. In Cleveland and Detroit, citizens were without clean drinking water—some for days. Many were trapped in elevators, including Bettie Lloyd, an auditor for Detroit’s public schools. Lloyd calmed herself by praying out loud and pacing, used her purse as a pillow, and was finally rescued 19 hours later. And elsewhere in Detroit, Steven Richardson was left to wait for another liver transplant; doctors weren’t sure hospital generators would hold out during surgery. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” he says. When the lights returned, millions sighed with relief, switched on their air conditioners and vowed to stock up on flashlights and batteries for next time.