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Contributed by: pamela mcdonough
Contributed on: July 13, 2012

Which blackout(s) did you experience?

In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
this is a short chapter from a book i'm writing about being one of the early women working behind the scenes in network tv:

The Blackout of ‘77


More than anything I wanted to make the transition to EJ(electronic journalism) camera operator. The department was just shaping up and seemed like a wide open opportunity. My take on it (wrong it turned out) was that turf was up for grabs, whereas the film department had a pecking order set in stone. I hoped to switch from editing to camera because I found editing extremely tedious. Plus I envied the field crews’ having all the experiences firsthand (instead of secondhand in an editing room).
Hoping to show that I’m a team player, I’d volunteer to fill in as needed in the EJ department. A reordering of the news archives was underway, moving from film to tape. Thousands of hours of footage had to be screened and either archived or jettisoned. They always needed tape operators to run the machines (NABET wouldn’t allow you to sneeze in an editing room without a tech present), but this job was blood money it was so boring.
And frustrating?! They had very young kids, interns or just a skosh better, screening the tapes, who’d shitcan everything because they were too young to recognize the players. After a couple of arguments about “No, you shouldn’t throw this out, this guy ran for president and surely will again. We’ll need this down the road”, and having some snippy rich kid blow off your input, you decided “well then screw it”. But I hated turning into a dead-eyed drone. I dodged archives duty like everyone else, but occasionally had to agree if I wanted to stay in their good graces.

Anyway, this is how I ended up working in the tape library the night of the Blackout of ’77. The screening room, buried on the 4th floor of 30 Rock, was far from any windows. The power in the room blinked and then went out. Of course I figured our circuit overloaded and the problem affected just us. There was a lot of rewiring going on, so we’d get an occasional hit. But when power didn’t come right back up, I felt my way thru the corridor out to the main hall. PITCH BLACK! I figured it must just be this floor. In the black you could hear people cursing and calling “what the hell!” “Are you dark too?” ‘Who’s there??!!”
I found the stairwell door and thought if I make my way to another floor, there’d be light. I HATE THE DARK, so I really wanted to get out of it. But the stairwells were totally dark and when I got to the next floor,it was too. Jesus! Could the whole building be out?
30 Rock seems like a world unto itself—a fabulous Art Deco luxury liner, huge and powerful and thoroughly impressive. The thought that the whole building had gone dark didn’t immediately spring to mind. Forget the whole city!!! Not to mention the Northeast. (sometime, I have the New Yorker’s view of the world: the city, vast and intricate, across the river the rest of the world tapering off like fringe). As I felt around in the dark, a little frightened and creeped out, I heard someone say the whole city was down and this could take a while.

Now, I realize I’m supposed to be a news person and this certainly qualified as a news event. But honestly my gut reaction was to “head towards the light”: Hurley’s (the NBC watering hole downstairs)!. I knew this’d be the rallying spot, so I worked my way down the stairwells.
Sure nuff, everyone working headed there, as if to the arms of Mother. “Hurry with those drinks, we’re gonna run out of ice!” ”We need to drink the beer before it gets warm!” And so we did, at least until the phone rang. Of course the phone would ring there looking for people. In fact there had been an NBC extension in Hurleys till Nixon visited China and some drunks called from Hurleys to raise hell, and the call was put thru because it came from the NBC switchboard. Next day the Hurley’s hotline was removed.
Anyway, the call ordered troops to regroup. Till they could get the emergency generators squared away, everyone should help out the
EJ crews.
I joined a crew which also happened to be doing duty at Hurley’s. Our first order of business to go to New Jersey and get gas for the truck. All the pumps in the city were down. We rode over and gassed up and it all seemed like quite an adventure, and thrilled me to finally be out with a crew. But then on the sqwak box ordered us back to the building “to get riot gear…you’re going up to The Bronx and it’s bad! Looting and fires”.

Well, I can’t tell you how fast the hilarity went out of the beer balloon. I’d already been mugged a couple of times (the 70s were dangerous years in NYC) and didn’t relish the thought of another notch. Just as we got back to the building the word came down, first we’d be doing a live shot for the Tonite Show out front in Rockefeller Plaza. This sounded much better than The Bronx to me, as if we’d dodged a bullet…maybe literally.

We pulled our truck around front and the camera and sound guys set up lights. Somehow, I got sent down to check an audio patch in a little room behind the huge Prometheus statue at the skating rink. They brought me down and showed me the patch field and the various options, and gave me a 2way radio and flashlight. They’d go back upstairs and start telling me to try this patch and that and would woof when we got it right.

Honestly, I HATE THE DARK and this little room felt incredibly creepy. I imagined there must be rats, little did I know they’d be of the two legged variety. Suddenly, these two Spanish guys appeared in the room.
“What are you doing?” they asked.
“Fixing the sound for a tv show upstairs. Who are you?”
They spoke between themselves in Spanish and laughed a really lousy laugh. My stomach went into a knot.

Like all NewYorkers, I speak enough subway Spanish to know when the via es peligrossa, and this was. As they moved in on me, I remembered the 2way radio and secretly clicked it on.
“You guys shouldn’t be down here if you don’t work for NBC. This is private property. If you don’t work for NBC,you’re going to get in trouble. AND I’M GOING TO BE IN TROUBLE CAUSE YOU’RE HERE!”

In about 2 seconds a bunch of the techs from up in the plaza came bursting down the stairs to save me. And that’s what happened to me when the lights went out.

I’ve had a few close calls in my life, and on the night of the blackout this was the FIRST OF TWO! After the Tonite Show cut-in, scheduling told me to stick around the building because they’d rigged a couple of rooms and needed editors. My crew did go up to The Bronx, where they got severely roughed up, one put in the hospital when brained by a bottle, and the truck was set on fire. They came back with a war story I was glad to have missed.

Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
i believe the lighening story and that it cascaded..it was a hot night and the grid was already stressed.

Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
1977 only

Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
the looting and violence were very scary....the city was dangerous in those days.
there was a lot of race tension...it just boiled over

How did the blackout(s) affect you?
nothing lasting...the rest is in my story

What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
i was working the news!

How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
2003 was piece of cake....the city has become very relaxed and safe compared to thoe 70s

What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
not much change...too big a utility...arrogant...but then they serve a lot of folks with antiquated equipment...so i guess they do a good job

If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
'65 really surprised me...i was on the way to the wake of a friend who'd died in an accident...i didnt have emotional reserves to deal with the upheaval.

'77 scary for the lawlessness

Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)

If yes, please explain:
there's rage and violence just below the surface....any change to break out and it will

Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?

How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
Other (please specify)

If other, please specify:
bough flashlights and keep them where i can find them in the dark

This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:

Cite as: pamela mcdonough, Story #2195, The Blackout History Project, 13 July 2012, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/2195/>.
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