My Memories of The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003

Thursday, August 14, 2003 started early for me, early and in another time zone.

I awoke in my barracks at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown and hopped into a taxi for the short drive to Frederiction airport for a 6:00 a.m. flight to Toronto – I was getting my weekend home on leave.

The flight home

I disliked flying and wasn’t looking forward to being on board a first flight of the day. In the departure lounge, a couple of us soldiers were talking about our disdain for Bombardier made army vehicles and what we felt were their unreliable nature.

The co-pilot must have overheard us and was probably a former air force type because he emphasized that we were on a B-B-B-o-o-m-b-b-b-a-r-r-dier regional jet and inserted B-B-B-o-o-m-b-b-b-a-r-r-dier at seemingly every opportunity in his preflight announcement.

By the time the plane reached the runway, I was completely awake on the count of my nervousness.

It would turn out to be the smoothest flight I had. The landing was so smooth I only knew we were on the ground by looking out the window.

Upon arrival in Toronto, I took the airport shuttle to Union and boarded the GO bus home to Hamilton.

I arrived in Hamilton late morning, and went to my apartment to organize my business – paying bills and such before getting back on board a flight to New Brunswick Sunday afternoon.

In Hamilton and the Blackout Strikes

After a nap, I went out with friends I hadn’t seen for a bit.

At 4:00 p.m., my friends and I arrived at Eastgate Square and headed for the Fortinos supermarket. I can’t remember why we were there, we had just entered the store and were in the produce section when I noticed the power surge.

My friend Bob noticed me perk up at the power surge and asked “what?”, just then the power went out.

Just a local blackout … wrong

It was a hot summer day and localized power outages weren’t entirely uncommon. With Fortinos closed, we went to Bob’s parent’s place nearby and grilled up dinner.

I didn’t think anything of the power outage – it was just a hot summer day.

We walked a few blocks to my friend’s place, fired up the barbecue and enjoyed dinner.

We didn’t check the news and nobody called us to share the news.

What are you doing Joey?

Around 6:30 p.m., I walked the five blocks from my friend’s home to my apartment building.

I had a nice apartment of my own at the time.

Age 21 (I had moved in at 18) made me the youngest person in the building by far. The next youngest couple, in the three-story building, were their mid-40s.

Everyone in the building knew me – I stood out for being young, had run for public office at 18 (getting all of them to vote for me), and I was the only soldier in the building. I walked in and out in uniform every weekday and many times on the weekend.

The building had a power generator for the hallways and elevator. The lobby was powered and as I walked up the courtyard, I could see many people huddled around a television.

I walked into the building and everyone looked at me perplexed.

I thought it weird.

“What are you doing Joey? Where is your cellphone?”

I was taken back. ‘What do you mean where’s my cellphone?’

“Power is out everywhere!”

I respond ‘it’s just a power outage, no big deal’

Then I looked at the TV and I realized this was a major incident. I better figure out what my orders were.

Corporal Coleman, requesting orders Sir

It dawned on me why my cellphone didn’t ring. As far as my Hamilton unit knew, I was still in Gagetown and therefore pointless to call me.

I immediately began calling up the chain-of-command while getting into my uniform and grabbing my gear to go.

John Weir Foote Armouries Hamilton – dead line
Brigade Headquarters in London – dead line
Area Headquarters in Toronto – dead line
CFB Borden – dead line
CFB Kingston – dead line

All of these bases had electronic switchboards without power generators – hence no phone lines.

I then called CFB Gagetown and asked the operator to connect me with the Base Duty Officer, it being after-hours there.

The Base Duty Officer answered and I stated

“Corporal Coleman, Infantry School, looking for instructions regarding the blackout in Ontario.”

The Captain barked “Corporal, I’m a little busy right now.” and hung-up.

*(In Gagetown, thousands of US National Guard troops were on training exercises and were quickly loading up water and other supplies in response to the blackout. They were heading towards New York City, on the theory that if the blackout continued, they would be needed with supplies in 48 hours.)

I called back. “Sir, Corporal Coleman, I’m in Ontario on leave and need orders, Sir.”

He asked why I was in Ontario, I explained weekend leave. He stated he was not sure what orders to give, that there were no response plans, and suggested I either try to get a flight back early to New Brunswick if possible or, after checking that I had provisions for a long power outage, suggested just enjoy my weekend leave the best I could.

Could I be useful

I had my uniform on, should I go out and direct traffic or otherwise be useful?

I looked out at the city – it was calm, people were treating intersections as all-way stops, there was little need for uniforms – people were standing up themselves.

I walked around the Glendale neighbourhood where I lived, everyone was sharing their ice cream, beer, and meat.

Only weeks prior, following a complaint from a citizen, National Defence Headquarters had issued a directive about aiding civil power.

In June, the military had supported the National Road Cycling Championships by providing security and logistics. A complaint was filed about the military acting in a police capacity.

Someone, much above my pay rate, ruled the National Defence Act was violated. We were not to engage in these activities without a declaration from Parliament.

Without orders, and mindful of the directive, I packed my uniform into a bag – ready if orders finally came.

Until then, it was time to make the best of a one-in-a-lifetime event.

Enjoying the Blackout

I had supplies for a long blackout and wasn’t particularly keen on going back to New Brunswick. I called up a friend and we went out for the night. She drove. Without lights of apartment buildings, I quickly became disoriented.

We went to Olympic Park. What a difference – there were no buzz of the high-voltage electrical lines, no City lights except the odd flashlight, headlight, or home with a generator.

Looking up into the sky, I didn’t know what to make of all the stars and the universe above.

I thought I had seen the night sky during those long cold nights of military field exercises and training up North – I hadn’t.

My friend and I were goofing around as young adults do. She was punching my back.

Being the “tough army guy” I thought I was, I let him take punch after punch on my back – awaiting for her to get tired of it.

She was wearing a ring and it wedged between my shoulder-blade and back. I felt the pain as a few muscles were strained. I was barely able to move my shoulder and couldn’t carry any weight.

My injury was non-life-threatening. Thinking, I couldn’t rightfully visiting an emergency room and take away needed resources, I didn’t get it looked at until Sunday evening in New Brunswick.

I went home and nursed my sore shoulder until Sunday when I headed to the airport for my flight back “home” to Gagetown.

The engine problem on the flight back

My eventful weekend wasn’t yet done. The airplane I was flying sucked up a bird during takeoff, stalling the right engine.

I was wearing my uniform for travel (I was only two weeks away from returning from Gagetown and this meant one less set of clothing to carry back) and had to keep quiet acting “army tough” as my stomach sank while the plane slowly climb with a left bank.

There were a few screams when the engine stalled and even more over Buffalo (we took off from Hamilton) as we hit what seemed to be turbulence.

I couldn’t relax the rest of the flight or even during the taxi ride from Moncton to Gagetown.

Back to Duty

I reported for duty Monday morning – with my arm in a sling, having been “beat up by a girl”.

Needless to say, there was some friendly poking about that.

My Sergeant joked that she let me go home for the weekend, I shut off the power, and then came back broken. (For the record, I really enjoyed my time in Gagetown and wished it was a permanent assignment instead of an emergency backfill)

Reflections on the Blackout

At the time, I was furious that my weekend off was “ruined” by the blackout. I thought about all the business I didn’t get done on Friday, that I had used two annual vacation days, and came back injured.

In hindsight, I’m glad I experienced the blackout.

It proved that, contrary to my training, people are inherently good and respond to crisis by assisting each other – not by panic and chaos. I saw this firsthand.

I had the opportunity to experience what the night sky looked like with only minimal light pollution.

The blackout brought me closer to my friends and my community.

It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

It’s too bad we didn’t have the widespread proliferation of smart phone cameras and Twitter, that documentation of the human experience would still inspire us even today.