Most people remember the 2003 blackout, that sent NYC and much of the Northeast into darkness on a sultry August day. But it was nothing compared to the Blackout of 1977 during the frightening "Summer of Sam." On the 38th anniversary of the blackout, PBS will air a new American Experience feature, Blackout, with archival photographs and footage, plus interviews from those who lived through it; one recalls, "Buildings were burning. Cars were burning. Garbage in lots were burning."
The program takes you back into the bad, old days of the city, when New York teetering towards bankruptcy, unemployment was high, city employees were being laid off and the Son of Sam was a year and a half into his reign of terror. A thunderstorm on July 13, 1977 hit a power line in Westchester County and a cascade of problems occurred, as power demand surged on the other available lines. Con Ed ended up dumping customers off the grid to save the system—but the lights still went out.
Here's an exclusive clip from Blackout, which features Kevin Zraly, then wine director of Windows on the World, remember what he saw from the top of the World Trade Center, as NYC went dark around him during dinner service.
Exclusive Clip of 1977 Blackout Documentary...by Gothamist
The program's press notes note:
That night, in the city that never sleeps, the divide between the haves and the have-nots became ever more apparent. In some neighborhoods, there was conviviality, as diners at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center were treated to free champagne and allowed to remove their jackets and ties. Helpful citizens took to the streets to direct traffic. Impromptu block parties broke out, and bartenders served patrons in T-shirts and shorts. Upper East Side residents had candlelit dinners on the roof.
But in the poorer neighborhoods of the city's boroughs, the power outage spurred near-immediate mayhem under the cover of darkness. As employees at Con Edison struggled to restore power to the elaborate system, people smashed windows and ripped security gates off storefronts, carting off washing machines, sofas, Pampers, TVs, refrigerators — whatever they could carry. By the time the power was fully restored more than a day later, more than 1,600 businesses had been looted, over 3,700 people had been arrested, and firefighters had battled more than 1,000 fires.
Executive producer Mark Samels says, "The 1977 blackout reminds us of how easily we take things for granted. We expect the lights to turn on, the garbage to be picked up, and the trains to run — all these systems keep our daily lives going. But when a city is plagued by crime, unemployment, reduced services, and growing anger, an event like a blackout can be the spark that ignites a fire. The thin crust of civilization is suddenly gone and we discover that urban life is much more fragile than we thought."
Blackout will air on PBS on July 14, 2015, at 9 p.m. EST. Check your local listings.