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August 14, 2021 11:50 pm  #1


18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I had a battery operated Sony am/fm radio, and listened nonstop to Newstalk 1010 and GNR am 640 to keep updated about the actual blackout, and just to keep a bit of normalcy during that unnerving no lights, no a/c, no nothing time period.

It was Thursday, August 14, 2003, just after 4:00 pm. and boy did radio stations come through for their listeners, providing crucial information and a sense of community.

There was the actual blackout and then I believe there were also rolling brown outs before things returned to normal, it must have been interesting and challenging as hell to be on-air.

 

August 15, 2021 12:06 am  #2


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

anyone remember who was on the air at the time?

 

August 15, 2021 12:12 am  #3


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

cash wrote:

anyone remember who was on the air at the time?

Stafford won the day. CFRB was off the air to start. Stafford was the only one on as it broke

 

August 15, 2021 12:17 am  #4


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was working in our TV newsroom that day and I will never forget the exact moment the power went out. A newsroom can be a terribly noisy place, with editing bays blaring audio, people talking, phones ringing, police radios going off, etc. At about 4:11 PM, everything stopped. There was dead silence. And I'll never forget how loud that sudden silence sounded. 

We were getting ready for the 6 PM show and it was just starting to get really busy. And then out of nowhere, nothing worked. The station was foolish enough not to have an emergency back-up generator, although they somehow procured one in a truck from somewhere and we were back up and running in about half an hour. 

Everyone was way behind schedule, but the news director was determined to cover this story and get a show on the air, anyway. We all looked at each other and wondered, "for who?" With the power out for the entire city and most of the province, who would be able to watch this show? 

Nonetheless, we did get a 6 o'clock news on that night and I'm pretty sure the only ones who ever saw it were the people in the station who presented it. (A year later, on the anniversary of that incredible day, we put it up on our website, describing it as "the newscast you never saw.") 

I was lucky enough to get a ride home with a co-worker, since the subways were down. It was the single most frightening journey I've ever had - people walking everywhere and anywhere on the roads, no overheard illumination and no traffic lights. Just the headlights from the car we were in, in otherwise pitch blackness. You had to remind yourself to treat every intersection as a four-way stop the entire journey from the downtown core all the way up to where I lived at the time in North York. I'm not sure how we made it and didn't hit anyone. 

It was a night - and a story - I will never forget and one of the oddest I ever had in broadcasting.

 

August 15, 2021 8:50 am  #5


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was in a TV newsroom too RA but we DID have a backup generator and the outage was just a blip. As we went to air at 6:00 I was thinking the same as you... who can watch if power is out everywhere? Only people with home generators I guess and it turns out the satellite carriage was still up as we got some viewer feedback mostly from western Canada. 

Our radio stations were in a separate location and only had battery backup which lasted several hours but then they went silent later in the evening. Luckily power was restored later that night.

It was quite a day to remember.   

 

August 15, 2021 11:31 am  #6


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was on the phone speaking with an ad agency sales rep in NYC.  All of a sudden the rep I was speaking to said that the power just went out.  About 10 seconds later the lights in downtown Kitchener where I was working went out.  I said to the New York rep that this might be like the blackout of 1965. 

About 15 minutes later I had a call from a client in Montreal.  First thing I asked her was if the power was out.  She said no, but she had heard that a lot of the Eastern US and most of Ontario had gone dark. 

When I went home around 5:15pm,  and went out to the deck to read the paper.  I  turned the deck light on which was located right above where I was sitting.  I figured if the power came back on, I would notice right away.  It was a beautiful summer evening and everyone was in their backyard.  I was chatting with a neighbour after reading the paper and all of a sudden my deck light came on.  It was about 6:20pm. 

Don't ask me why but there were a few sections of Kitchener who only had about a 2-3 hour blackout, and I was living in one of those areas.  The rest of the region was dark.  So I was able to watch whatever was on television or listen to radio coverage. 

I remember seeing Lloyd Robertson at around 6:45 in a dark studio with only a spotlight on him reading whatever information he had.  They did have a some reports from various areas around Toronto which I thought was pretty interesting. Most stations as I recall were out on the street with live or taped reports and as the evening went on in areas of Toronto, the blackout was taking on almost a festive or party atmosphere. People were helping each other, and some were directing traffic at busy intersections.  Neighbours were out talking to neighbours. 

Locally Magic 106 in Guelph and Newstalk 570 did an excellent job informing people what was going on, what was open and any areas that had power in Waterloo/Wellington county.  Both stations had a lot of phoners from listeners and it confirmed the importance of media in a crisis.
 
KOOLFM in Kitchener was terrible.  They brought in their morning team, and these clowns were treating the whole thing like it was their morning show in the evening.  Little information, no what was open or closed, just a lot of self indulgent comments about each other, and patting themselves on the back because they were working in the evening.  As I recall there was even a letter to the editor in a local paper commenting on KOOL FM and their lack of coverage of the big blackout.      

Last edited by paterson1 (August 15, 2021 11:33 am)

 

August 15, 2021 12:38 pm  #7


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

Mr magoogain wrote:

cash wrote:

anyone remember who was on the air at the time?

Stafford won the day. CFRB was off the air to start. Stafford was the only one on as it broke

I thought Mike Stafford was long gone from RB by that time.  CFRB was being anchored that day by the late great Mark Elliott.  He was new at RB and was doing afternoon fill-in.  He wound up being thrown into the fire, as it were.  Did a spectacular job.

Still miss him.

 

Last edited by Peter the K (August 15, 2021 12:38 pm)

 

August 15, 2021 2:27 pm  #8


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

Not quite.  CFRB was off air for 4 to 7 seconds while the generators switched over.  

Luckily we had a hydro transformer blow up outside the building 4 or 5 weeks before, which killed all power to the entire building, so we knew exactly where all the weak points were, including the internet switch in the phone riser which would have died after 40 minutes.  We ran an extension cord downstairs to keep that up and running.  We did lose the CBS audio feeds because they came in from York Mills and Yonge which was dark.

I was there, Mark Elliot was on-air and after an initial 'what was that' he kept doing the show because _everything_ from phones to lighting to AC to cable-tv remained up and running.

680 was off air for a bit because corporate had keys to the UPS closet and not everything switched over properly, and then there was the CN tower clusterfuck later that night.


Mr magoogain wrote:

cash wrote:

anyone remember who was on the air at the time?

Stafford won the day. CFRB was off the air to start. Stafford was the only one on as it broke

 


Madness takes its toll.  Please have exact change.
 
 

August 15, 2021 3:59 pm  #9


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

If nothing else, this certainly proves the power and value of radio. When TV is out (and possibly the Internet, too) or your phone dies because you can't recharge it, there's the audio-only powerhouse guiding you through the darkness, with the help of only a few AA batteries.

It was the same thing during the ice storm of 2013, although not everyone in the city lost hydro in that four-day outage.

I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and WWL, the emergency go-to outlet for the state of Louisiana, was playing on almost every station. Again, when the chips were down - and the electricity with it - it was radio that rode to the rescue. 

 

August 15, 2021 6:20 pm  #10


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I lived in London at the time and recall listening to CJBK on a battery-operated radio for most of the evening. If I’m not mistaken, they had morning man Steve Garrison come in and take calls from listeners, but I might be wrong on who it was. I was actually watching The Weather Network at the moment my power went out. I think my parents and I barbecued for dinner.

We had power back around 10:30pm, in time for CTV National News anyways; we got it back relatively early compared to many, including elsewhere in London.

I remember The London Free Press the next morning, the front page was a group of people tossing salad in a dark kitchen.

Last edited by MJ Vancouver (August 15, 2021 6:23 pm)

 

August 15, 2021 8:08 pm  #11


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

ig wrote:

and then there was the CN tower clusterfuck later that night.
 

What happened at the tower? Generators didn't work?

 

August 15, 2021 10:00 pm  #12


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

When the blackout first hit, I was helping a neighbour with some electrical work. I thought I had done something wrong.


You don't have to be a good sport to be a mad one.
 

August 17, 2021 3:38 pm  #13


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

Started to run out of power.  Stations were asked to cut their output and finally _told_ to switch to their backups.

I don't honestly know why, I've always answered the question 'how long can the generator run' with 'how much fuel do you have' but either they didn't have redundant tanks that could be filled on the fly, (assuming it was diesel) or something else went wrong, or it was just never designed to carry for more than 6-8 hours.  I'd imagine it must be a pretty huge load. 

As I said,  I don't know.  I do know there were a lot of unhappy folks on a conference call around 8pm that night .


torontostan wrote:

ig wrote:

and then there was the CN tower clusterfuck later that night.
 

What happened at the tower? Generators didn't work?

 


Madness takes its toll.  Please have exact change.
 
 

August 17, 2021 4:41 pm  #14


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

As I recall, there were two generators for broadcast at the CN Tower.  Both had to start, run, AND synchronize their output (In Phase !) as both combined to handle the entire load.  I believe there was an issue with the gensets synchronizing.

As for "how long can a generator run?", it's dependent on the load, and how much fuel you have.  Some broadcasters would switch to backup transmitters as they are often lower powered and thus a lesser load on the generator, and extend the run time.

Generators are typically installed to cover local power outages, not rare system-wide failures.  One of the issues that quickly came up that night was fuel delivery.  Everyone wanted fuel.  If the delivery people don't have power, they can't fill the trucks (kinda ironic).  Also, hospitals and other such facilities had priority.

I also seem to recall an issue at First Canadian Place.  They also had two generators.  The automated louvers that open to provide outside cooling air for the generators were connected to a single generator.  That generator failed to start.  The generator that did start ultimately over-heated and shutdown.  They've probably changed that by now.  https://cdn.boardhost.com/emoticons3/wassat.png

 

August 17, 2021 6:58 pm  #15


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

So was there a time where no Toronto FMs were on the air? Sounds like CN and FCP were both off-air for a period of time, potentially at the same time

 

August 17, 2021 8:00 pm  #16


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I remember visiting some relatives about an hour north of Kingston, Ontario that day while I was living in Sudbury, Ontario. My aunt was wondering why all the fans were turned off around the house and tried the light switches and wouldn't come on. We later found out that the power was off and initially thought it was in a localized area until I was shocked to hear it was most of the province, and the northeastern United States. Luckily, I brought down my portable 9" inch battery operated black and white TV to catch some of the live images of the black out and I was like "Oh my god".
I checked out the car radio and most of the radio stations from Ottawa, Kingston, Brockville and surrounding areas were off the air with some on backup power but had heard a few from remaining ones still on the air with some via tropo such as:

98.3 WTRY from Albany, NY - Heard while 98.3 CFLY-FM Kingston, ON was off the air.

Not tropo: 104.9 CFJR-FM Brockville, ON was still simulcasting on their old AM 830 kHz frequency at the time that were both off the air and came back on during the blackout.

I wonder if we'll ever see a widespread power blackout like the one on August 14, 2003 ever again in our lifetime?

 

August 17, 2021 8:12 pm  #17


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I hadn't started working at WXXI in Rochester yet (that was a few months later) and was between broadcast jobs, doing freelance writing and getting ready for my first child, who was due a few weeks later. The TV and FM stations on Pinnacle Hill in Rochester all went off as soon as the power went out, but power stayed on at the WXXI studios downtown and at the AM 1370 site. I was friends with the engineer and went over to see how it was going and helped him shift over to generator so that it wouldn't go off if they eventually did lose power.

My rooftop antenna was pointed northeast when the power went out and I didn't (at the time) have an inverter or any other source of power to be able to turn it. Being a hot August day, tropo ducting was in full effect, so I had an FM dial full of Kingston and Ottawa and some Montreal - I did a lot of listening to CBO 91.5 that day with my local WXXI-FM off!

Around 11 or so, I went over to visit a friend who did have an inverter set up and a battery-operated TV and we scanned around to see what was still on the air on TV. He had reception all the way to Albany on 10 and 13 with our locals off. 

I went home a little after that, as some areas were starting to get power back. As soon as we got ours back, I cranked my antenna over toward Albany as fast as I could in hopes of seeing their 10 and 13 - and just as I swung the antenna around, my locals on Pinnacle all came back on and the fun was over, such as it was. 

 

August 18, 2021 3:01 am  #18


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

i remember listening to my buddy "mark elliott"... may he rip. 

 

August 18, 2021 9:22 am  #19


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was in the middle of a phone interview when my landline plug-in phone went dead and we lost our connection. When I realized the scope of the outage and that stations were either off or on reduced power I abandoned ship and high tailed it to the Scarborough Bluffs and spent the evening and much of the night chasing a fair to middling tropo opening that stretched down to New Jersey and yielded signals on otherwise local channels.

On the way home, I realized I had a quarter tank of gas. Enough to get home but not to try other tropo hotspots or, for that matter, use my car for much of anything. Since then, I have rarely let my gas tank  fall below half-way after completing trips.

 

August 18, 2021 9:42 am  #20


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

It was the final Summer of my Mother's life.  She was visiting, and I remember we all sat under the car port; with a couple of neighbours.

 

August 18, 2021 11:32 am  #21


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was in college and using my mothers car that day on the promise I pick her up from the Go Train station in north etobicoke at 430.  I was listening to the radio in the car but dont remember the station.  I noticed it was 445 and there is still no train.  The radio then faded out and hit seek and it kept scanning not really catching much.  680 news worked full power and heard of the blackout.

The CN tower stations I remember them being weak and at times fading out.  Then would come back full power only to fade out shortly after.

 

August 18, 2021 12:42 pm  #22


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was at work and remember everyone exiting the building and getting on their cellphones.  I called my mom to tell her not to worry about the power failure, and she wondered how I knew her power was out.  She was more concerned when she learned it was as large as it was.  I lived in a strange pocket of London where the power was out until Saturday morning.  It was strange the lights came on, on the streets around me that evening (14th) and figured mine would be on soon only to continue to wait and wait.  Had to move food from my freezer to my sisters place as it dragged on.

 

August 18, 2021 1:41 pm  #23


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

I was at a friends house in East York when the power went out. Can't remember how we found out it wasn't just her house, but I left shortly after, trying to make my way across Toronto to a little bit south and west of Eglinton and the Humber River. While I knew a lot of side street backways home, so did a lot of other people. Patience was certainly a virtue. What sticks in my mind is how sunny and hot it was and how ordinary citizens were directing traffic and other people had given them bottled water. I'm also old enough to remember the blackout in the 60s, and how quiet and dark it was and how bright the stars were.

 

August 24, 2021 8:31 pm  #24


Re: 18 Years Ago, The Big Blackout Hit Toronto

Just came across this. It's what happened during the first big blackout way back in Nov. 1965. I was a kid, but I remember the lights dimming at first while were watching a Laurel & Hardy movie on CFTO around 5 PM. They came back on once or twice then died altogether. And we were in the dark for a long time after that. 

Here's what the networks did that night. 

https://i.ibb.co/RyBjRn7/1965-Blackout-On-TV-TV-Guide-Nov-20-1965.jpg