It was just before 4:10 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003, when the lights went out on the 25th floor of 1 London Place.
The backup generator would kick in almost immediately and Lisa Thomas hardly noticed there was a problem. Of course, it turned out to be a fairly catastrophic problem.
Actually, the power failed that day not just in the Forest City, but also throughout Ontario and across numerous northeastern and midwestern American states. All together, the blackout plunged approximately 10 million people in Ontario, and 45 million people in eight U.S. states, into darkness.
An investigation would eventually trace the source of the blackout to a problem at the FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. Operators were unaware of the need to re-distribute power after overloaded transmission lines hit some unpruned trees.
Of course Thomas, who was working as an assistant at RBC Private Client at the time, knew none of that. What she did soon learn, however, was she had a very long walk ahead of her — in high heel shoes nonetheless.
“It was fascinating, we could see all the way down Wellington that the lights were out, all the lights were out around the building,” Thomas said. “But the interesting thing was how full of people the streets were and that was weird.”
Before too long Thomas was told everyone was being evacuated from 1 London Place as the generator power would only last so long. From the 25th floor, Thomas knew she had a long hike down the stairs ahead of her — something she had only done twice before during fire drills and one other time during a false alarm.
By the time she got to the bottom — and after seeing packed buses and snarled traffic — Thomas decided to walk home to the area of Ferndale and Upper Queens. It was about an hour’s walk, but Thomas said it changed how she saw her city.
“Normally, people don’t talk to you, but everybody talked to you that day. People were sitting out on their porch, offering you water, asking if you needed to some water,” Thomas said. “It was very much not the town I know. This is very much a backyard town, but not that day, people were really different.”
For Kathy McLaughlin, the view was a little different. McLaughlin worked at, and lived about, the former Downtown London office on Dundas Street. So when the power went out, she only had to pop upstairs and make sure everything was all right.
After she did that, and had contacted as many friends and family members as she could, McLaughlin went downstairs and joined in the large crowd of people who had gathered.
She visited with some of the merchants in the area, many of whom were understandably hesitant to leave their businesses unattended. However, despite a somewhat “eerie” feeling, McLaughlin said she never once felt threatened.
“Whether it was a neighbourhood or a business community, it was that human instinct to be there for each other, to help one another,” McLaughlin said. “People would walk by and ask how things were going. It just really made you feel like everyone was trying to work together to get us through this crisis.”
Andrew McClenaghan was returning to London with a couple of buddies after spending 17 days on the east coast. With CDs playing in the car stereo, McClenaghan remembers not hearing anything about the blackout until his group reached Montreal.
At that point, McClenaghan said they ran into people who were talking about the blackout. Armed with that new bit of information, McClenaghan and his friends would stop at a Canadian Tire in Montreal and purchase a gas tank and fuel, just in case.
One thing McClenaghan clearly remembers is driving across Toronto and hardly coming across any cars, which is fairly strange for a seven-lane highway through Canada’s busiest city.
“It was the morning when we rolled into London so it didn’t really affect us,” McClenaghan said. “But it was such a weird feeling driving across Toronto, looking south and wondering what was going on. Coming across the GTA, it was almost like a ghost town.”
Kadie Ward had the same feeling driving back to the Forest City from visiting friends in Northern Ontario. She had filled up her rental car in North Bay and was now pretty much out of gas by the time she reached Toronto.
Like McClenaghan and his friends, Ward had been listening to CDs on the car stereo and so had no idea just how serious the problem was.
Fortunately, Ward had a cooler full of food in her car, so she stopped at a friend’s place in the Yonge and Lawrence area and essentially camped out in their back yard for three days.
“I am from Northern Ontario, so it was really no big deal. Every winter the power goes out for two or three days,” Ward said. “But people did get out and make sure everyone was OK. That is what a lot of people did, which makes you feel pretty proud.”