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Subway, theatres close as blackout hits Manhattan

More than 70,000 homes and businesses lose power for five hours on Saturday after transformer explosion

With some subway stations and traffic lights dark during the power outage, many residents and visitors alike took to the streets and walked.

New York

A WIDE swathe of New York's Manhattan borough was plunged into darkness on Saturday following a transformer explosion, knocking out power to subways, stores and Broadway theatres, but the city's main utility began restoring power several hours later.

The blackout lasted all of five hours. No deaths or injuries were reported due to the outage, which officials said began at 6.47pm EDT (2247 GMT), and darkened a stretch of the city from West 42nd Street to West 72nd Street, 42 years to the day that a major 1970s blackout sparked rioting and looting.

More than 70,000 homes and businesses lost power, officials said.

Shouts of celebration could be heard in parts of Manhattan as power was restored, bringing lights and air conditioners back to life.

A Reuters witness in the area reported hearing an explosion around 7pm (2300 GMT), and a city Fire Department spokesman said that firefighters were on the scene of a transformer fire.

Pavements in Times Square that are usually crowded with tourists on a balmy summer Saturday night were overflowing as at least some Broadway theatres cancelled performances. The lights of nearby Radio City Music Hall were dark.

In an attempt to cheer customers, the cast from the musical Come From Away performed a song in front of the stage door. Hadestown cast members also staged a street-side performance. With traffic lights out, cars and taxis jammed intersections as emergency vehicles and fire engines with sirens blaring tried to pass.

In some places, civilians stepped in to direct traffic. New York has endured large-scale blackouts before, most recently following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 as well as the widespread 2003 blackout across the US north-east that left most of the city without power for a day.

Saturday's outage occurred on the 42nd anniversary of a New York blackout that crippled the city during a heat wave on July 13, 1977. Power was not restored until the next day. Memories of rioting, looting and violence during the 1977 blackout spooked some tourists visiting the city.

As darkness fell just before 9 pm (0100 GMT), people on the Upper West Side had to use their mobile phone flashlights to negotiate normally brightly lit streets. There were reports of people trapped in building elevators without power.

Subways throughout the city were affected by the outage, with some lines skipping stations that lacked power and even lines in other boroughs diverted.

City Council speaker Corey Johnson wrote on Twitter that Consolidated Edison Inc's substation on the West Side had a "major disturbance".

With some stations and traffic lights dark, many residents and visitors alike took to the streets and walked, according to social media posts, many of which had the hashtag #blackoutnyc. The blackout also forced the evacuation of Madison Square Garden in the middle of a Jennifer Lopez concert.

The impact of the power failure on utility Consolidated Edison Inc's (ConEd) grid was so widespread that New York mayor Bill de Blasio cut short a presidential campaign trip to Iowa, and governor Andrew Cuomo went on television to demand answers from "Mr ConEd" (ConEd chief executive officer John McAvoy) himself.

ConEd, already in hot water because of other mechanical breakdowns in recent years, now faces renewed calls to overhaul its network.

Mr Cuomo, expressing frustration over what he described as repeated failures on ConEd's system, said in an interview with ABC News that he was sending his "top power team" to investigate the incident. He noted that Saturday's outage took hours to resolve when the utility had said that it would take one to two. "If they don't give me an answer quickly, I'm going to go to ConEd headquarters," he said. "If I don't get a firm answer forthwith, I'll go speak to Mr ConEd myself."

Mr De Blasio, meanwhile, called on city agencies to "get to the bottom of what happened".

Just over six months ago, ConEd faced an investigation after an electrical fire at a substation turned New York City's night sky blue, temporarily disrupting flights and subway services. In July 2018, it was the subject of a probe after an asbestos-lined steam pipe ruptured in Manhattan's Flatiron district. And a power failure in 2017 led to significant delays on the subway during a morning commute, triggering an investigation that cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG