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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 18:26 GMT 19:26 UK
Toronto parties through the blackout
By Rob Corbett
In Toronto

It is usually lit up like a gaudy, high-rise funfair. But last night Toronto's downtown was a pall of blackness.

That is except for where Torontonians' ingenuity spilt some pockets of light onto the scene and turned the massive power cut into a fiesta.

In one car park along Yonge Street - the world's longest - motorists switched on their lights, turned up their stereos and boogied at a surreal and homespun al fresco disco.

Shopkeepers keep an eye on their property
Some Toronto shop owners kept an overnight vigil at their stores
I suspect there were some flat batteries after that and no way of charging them.

Bars not wanting to sell warm beer were flogging it off cheaply.

It all added to the party atmosphere.

The tabletop candles were out of necessity, not decoration. Bar staff rediscovered the lost skill of mental arithmetic.

At the same time, aficionados feasted on $1-large tubs of ice cream sold off by one shopkeeper not wanting a sweet sea of unsaleable sludge on her hands.

In residential streets everywhere in the city, people were on their front steps talking to each other as the sun slipped behind the skyscrapers.

It is the norm in some neighbourhoods, but not others.

Last night it was pretty much universal.

Down one leafy street someone even brought out an old horned wind-up gramophone and his collection of 78s.

Crisis on a hot day

It was just after four in the afternoon when the power cut struck.

This year we had been warned that the electricity grid was at breaking point

It happens sometimes in Toronto and usually passes in a few minutes.

But this year, we had been warned that the electricity grid was at breaking point.

A hot day and the strain of a million air conditioners could put us in crisis.

And so it was.

The streetcars ground to a halt.

Picking up power from overhead wires, they could go no further.

The lights in shops and offices went off. The subway trains stopped.

The lifts in skyscrapers became suspended in space.

The traffic lights no longer helped motorists on their way.

People appeared on the street thinking only they were affected.

Quickly the realisation of the scale of what was going on came into view.

People stood shocked. Others bolted in vain for public transport.

Mobile phones were brandished, but systems were dead.

Then the massive impact buzzed around.

"It's in New York, Cleveland," one woman shouted; "Detroit" said a man at the foot of the bank towers.

"Ottawa's off, Montreal's OK, " cried another.

Then the inevitable theories passed around as to the cause, sending a chill down the back on a sweltering afternoon.

Policing the streets

Those truly sweltering like sardines on wheels were the passengers on Toronto's subway system.

Trapped between stations, they had to wait for emergency crews to lead them to safety.

Some members of the public helped to direct the traffic
Some members of the public even helped out directing Toronto's traffic
In the skyscrapers, the lifts were winched to the next floor and office workers had their fitness tested as they took to the stairs.

One hundred floors is no joke when your only exercise is prodding the remote control.

Perhaps among the bravest in the city as the power ran out were the voluntary traffic police.

Yes, ordinary citizens actually took it upon themselves to stand in the middle of Toronto's busiest intersections and direct the traffic.

Canadians, being a generally orderly bunch, heeded their waves and gestures.

Some of the temporary traffic wardens even had fluorescent jackets.

"The guy from over at that store gave it to me and he brought me a sandwich," said one self-styled supervisor as he waved his snack around to bring on a line of traffic.

Back home and my three-and-a-half year old observed: "Daddy, you don't cook pizza on the barbecue".

"You do today son, you do today".

The BBC's Kim Barnes
"By midnight some streets were flickering back to life"

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