A sudden blackout robbed electricity from millions of people across a vast swath of the northern United States and southern Canada on Thursday, exposing them to stifling heat and jammed rush hour streets and then darkness. New Yorkers escaped silenced subways, and nuclear power plants in four states shut down.
Officials were looking at a power transmission problem from Canada as the most likely cause of the biggest outage in U.S. history, said a spokeswoman for New York Gov. George Pataki.
Canadian authorities said at first that it appeared lightning had struck a power plant on the U.S. side of the border in the Niagara Falls region, setting off outages that spread over 9,300 square miles. But U.S. officials disputed that conclusion.
There was no sign of terrorism as the cause, officials in New York and Washington said.
The blackouts started shortly after 4 p.m. EDT, engulfing most of New York state and parts of New England, and spreading west to Ohio and Michigan. In Toronto, Canada's largest city, workers fled their buildings when the power went off. There also were widespread outages in Ottawa, the capital.
Power began to come back as afternoon turned to evening, but officials said full restoration would take much longer.
Outages ranged over an area with roughly 50 million people.
Traffic lights were out throughout downtown Cleveland and other major cities, creating havoc at the beginning of rush hour. Cleveland officials said that without the power needed to pump water to 1.5 million people, water reserves were running low.
New York state lost 80 percent of its power, said Matthew Melewski, speaking for the New York Independent System Oper-ator, which manages the state power grid. Both New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency.
In New York City, subways, elevators and airports, including John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, lost electricity or resorted to limited backup power. Thousands of people streamed into the streets of lower Manhattan in 90-degree heat, and some subway commuters were stuck underground for hours. As darkness fell, New Yorkers turned to candles and flashlights as scattered parts of the electrical grid came back on.
There were outages in several Vermont towns and in northern New Jersey, where Gov. James E. McGreevey mobilized 700 National Guardsman and ordered 300 extra state troopers on duty. In Connecticut, Metro-North Rail-road service was knocked out. Lights flickered at state government buildings in Hartford.
''We have been informed that lightning struck a power plant in the Niagara region on the U.S. side,'' said Jim Munson, speaking for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
But Brian Warner of the New York Power Authority said its Niagara facilities were not hit by lightning and ''at no time during this incident ceased to operate."
In San Diego, President Bush said ''slowly but surely we're coping with this massive, national problem.''
''I have been working with federal officials to make sure the response to this situation was quick and thorough and I believe it has been,'' Bush said.
In Massachusetts, Kim Hicks of Baltic, Conn., was on the Cyclone roller coaster at a Six Flags amusement park in Agawam when the power stopped. ''We sat there about 20 minutes and they finally came to walk us off,'' she said. The park regained power a short time later.
In Albany, N.Y., several people were trapped in elevators in Empire State Plaza, but most had been freed by 5 p.m. People in New York City lined up 10 deep or more at pay phones, with cell phone service disrupted in some areas. Times Square went dark
In Cleveland, Olga Kropko, a University Hospitals labor and delivery nurse, said the hospital was using its back-up generators and had limited power. ''Everyone is very hot because the air conditioning is off,'' she said. ''Our laboring moms are suffering.''
John Meehan, 56, walked down 37 stories in the BP Tower in downtown Cleveland, wearing his suit and carrying a briefcase. ''It makes you wonder, was this terrorism or what?'' he asked.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department both said the outages appeared to be a natural occurrence and not the result of terrorism.
Police in Mansfield, Ohio, spread into the streets to keep traffic flowing.
"A lot of officers are out there trying to make sure nobody gets hurt, to try to cut down on the accidents,'' said jail officer Randi Allen.
The blackouts easily surpassed those in the West on Aug. 11, 1996, in terms of people affected. Then, heat, sagging power lines and unusually high demand for electricity caused an outage for 4 million customers in nine states.
An outage in New York City in 1977 left 9 million people without electricity for up to 25 hours. In 1965, about 25 million people across New York state and most of New England lost electricity for a day.
On Thursday, Amtrak suspended passenger rail service between New Haven, Conn., and Newark. Some northbound trains from Washington a city that did not lose power turned around at Newark.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked the city's more than 8 million people to be calm, go home, open windows and drink water.
''Be sure you don't make an inconvenience into a tragedy,'' he said.
As for the cause, he said: ''It was probably a natural occurrence which disrupted the power system up there and it apparently for reasons we don't know cascaded down through New York state over into Connecticut, as far south as New Jersey and as far west as Ohio.''
In Washington, the Health and Human Services Department said the biggest health concern was people getting overheated and dehydrated, something local health systems appeared to be handling, said spokesman Campbell Gardett.
For New York police, the focus was on the ramifications of the blackout rather than its cause.
''We're more concerned about getting the traffic lights running and making sure the city is OK than what caused it,'' said a spokesman at the department's operations center downtown.
''The good news is that in New York City, while we have lost all the power, Con Ed's facilities have shut down properly, which we have programmed them to do,'' said Bloomberg.
Nine nuclear power reactors six in New York and one each in New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan reported they were shut down because of the loss of offsite power, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Bethesda, Md.
The North American Electric Reliability Council, an industry group responsible for monitoring the integrity of the system, said the power outages were ''widespread and appear to be centered around Lake Erie, although they are affecting the entire eastern interconnection.''
Flights at six airports Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark, Cleveland, Toronto and Ottawa were grounded, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.
In Times Square, Giovanna Leonardo, 26, was waiting in a line of 200 people for a bus to Staten Island.
''I'm scared,'' she said. ''It's that unknown 'what's going on' feeling. Everyone's panicking. The city's shutting down.''
The blackout closed the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which 27,000 vehicles use daily, and silenced the gambling machines at Detroit's Greektown Casino. Patrons filed into the afternoon heat carrying cups of tokens.
At the Homeland Security Department, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said federal officials were still gathering information and had not determined a cause.
The department ''is working with state and local officials and the energy sector to determine the cause of the outage as well as what response measures may be needed to be taken,'' he said. He said everyone should ''listen and heed the advice of the local authorities.''
Along several blocks near midtown Manhattan, deli owners brought their suddenly unrefrigerated food out on tables, iced in buckets. ''Half price on everything,'' read one sign.
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