Using Narrative to Tell the Blackout Story

Clayton, Mark
June 2004
Nieman Reports;Summer2004, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p31
The article presents the author's narrative reporting from inside a power plant in New York State telling the story of decision-making when a massive electric power failure hit the U.S. in 2003. Like so many calamities, the great blackout of 2003 was both a great news story to tell and a mystery. Early reports rumored a lightning strike at a power yard near Niagara Falls had knocked down the system down. Some speculated terrorism might be responsible. I began my quest with only faint hope of actually wangling my way inside any power plant. The only way into one of those plants was to be invited inside by one of its senior employees. I began my search with Google, looking for Web sites and phone numbers of those connected to the power industry, the power stations, industry associations and regional power authorities. By the next morning, power still was not back in New York. This encouraged me to continue pursuing my idea. Finally I recalled a casual conversation with the boiler maintenance chief in the basement of the Monitor building who had told me he once had worked in a power plant. I called him. I pleaded for him to call me when he could and gave him my number. It was the next day before he called me back at my home. The next day he called and finally, he told me I could come take a look if I wanted. After touring the boilers, I went with Wayne Bolton-Engelhardt to the control room. here I interviewed a half dozen men and learned how the lights went out. I learned, too, how the emergency power had come on for the Albany Steam Station for only the second time in its history. With the help of Bolton-Engelhardt and others in the control room, reconstructed a narrative account of what took place during these precious minutes.


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