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Utility: NYC blackout 10 times larger than thought

Con Edison update sparks outrage, call for criminal inquiry

NEW YORK -- The misery of a five-day blackout that has darkened large swaths of Queens during the hottest week of the year erupted into fury yesterday after Con Edison disclosed that the blackout is 10 times larger than it had previously reported.

The development sparked an angry response, with residents and city leaders branding the utility incompetent and a state lawmaker calling for a criminal investigation.

All the while, Queens residents endured another sweltering day with no lights and no air-conditioning, spoiled food piled up, and streetlights remained dark. A firehouse responded by handing out water and dry ice, and the Red Cross was giving away meals.

``I'm here and I go home and it's the same thing," said Marie Koutsoumbaris, a receptionist at a funeral home. ``No lights, no air."

Con Edison originally said the blackout affected only 2,500 customers, but provided a new estimate yesterday of 25,000, saying the initial figure was based only on the number of customers who called to complain. The number increased to 26,000 customers around midnight. The utility said it had not yet determined the cause of the increase.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the actual number of people without power is about 100,000; the term ``customer" can refer to more than one household or an entire apartment building.

Bloomberg said he was annoyed by the new estimate because ``we might have thrown more resources into the area."

``The sad thing is, this shouldn't have happened," Bloomberg said. ``We don't know why, but the most important thing [is to] make sure nobody dies or gets hurt, and then help Con Ed to get it back up."

Others had harsher words for Con Edison.

``They're either pathetic incompetents or pathetic liars," said Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr.

Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris of Astoria called for a ``criminal investigation of Con Edison on the grounds of reckless endangerment." Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said his office would consider the request.

Chris Olert, a Con Edison spokesman, said the company will ``cooperate with everyone's inquiries."

``We're trying to get them up as quickly as possible," said Alfonso Quiroz, a Con Edison spokesman. ``We're working 24/7, and we're hoping that the bulk of the customers that are out will be back on Sunday."

Con Edison said its revised number followed a block-by-block cable inspection in northwest Queens on Thursday night. That led to the higher number -- and escalated the rhetoric against Con Edison, the main power company in New York City and Westchester County.

``They have no way of measuring whether or not there's power to your house" until workers make it to that location, Bloomberg said. ``They cannot tell from their computers."

A series of heavy-duty circuits that supply the area began to fail Monday evening, just hours after the sweltering state set a record for electricity use. More circuits failed on Tuesday and more again on Wednesday, even after the city's heat wave ended and the demand for power plummeted.

Just why the heat would have triggered a problem in Queens, but not elsewhere, was unclear.

On Steinway Street in Astoria, a block between 30th and 31st streets was closed to traffic yesterday. Con Edison trucks lined the street, and workers were busy digging to fix power lines.

Most of the street's shops were shut, but the owner of the VIP men's clothing store, Bobby Collazo, was helping a customer in his dark shop. He said he had lost more than $1,000 because of the outages, nearly a third of his monthly gross income.

``In 2003, it took a day and a half to turn on all of the lights in New York City, and now this little store here has been closed for three days -- with the big Con Ed power station a few blocks away," he said, referring to the massive blackout three years ago that darkened much of the Northeast.

Mike Campbell, a construction employee on disability, attends Mass daily at St. Joseph's Church in Astoria, which has had no electricity for five days.

``It's like the days of Columbus, Mass by candlelight," he said.

``The priest had to use candles to read the Scriptures."

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