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HomeCanadaBreaking:: Ontario Couple's Wedding Imperiled by Massive North American Blackout 20 Years...

Breaking:: Ontario Couple’s Wedding Imperiled by Massive North American Blackout 20 Years Ago


While many people in Ontario have different memories of the 2003 blackout, Rebecca Canzio had her own reason for going into “survivor mode.”

Canzio was only a couple of days away from his wedding in Windsor when what is commonly known as the Northeast Blackout occurred on August 14, 2003.

“Starting your marriage with a blackout event that is historic is a bit strange,” she said. “But it really made us a couple that can just go with the flow and laugh at the little things.”

Twenty years ago, many cities near the lower Great Lakes, including Windsor, lost power when blackouts shut down traffic lights, office buildings, transit systems and airports. The blackout spanned more than 9,000 square miles, from Chicago to the East Coast.

The outage was caused by power lines in Ohio coming into contact with overgrown trees. The company that manages the lines, FirstEnergy Corporation, was unable to react or warn anyone else immediately due to a technical failure. A cascading effect occurred, causing a power surge that shut down more than 100 power plants in Ontario and the northeastern US.

Approximately 70 guests were supposed to travel to Windsor for Canzio’s wedding on August 16. However, the massive power outage two days before meant that some guests were unable to get there.

“We had over 250 guests at our wedding, but unfortunately, due to the power outage, we lost about 35 guests who were supposed to come,” said Canzio, who now lives in the Waterdown, Ontario, Hamilton area.

Godfather trapped in an elevator

That fateful Thursday, everything began to go wrong for Canzio.

The power went out at the hotel where the guests were supposed to stay, meaning the elevators stopped working.

“My brother-in-law, who was my husband’s godfather, got stuck in an elevator,” Canzio recalled.

He was finally rescued after 20 minutes.

The lack of electricity meant that as well as the elevators not working, there was no air conditioning in the hotel.

A page from Rebecca Canzio’s scrapbook recalling her wedding weekend. The newly opened Hampton Inn and Suites on Huron Church Road in Windsor, Ontario, where his out-of-town guests were staying, lost power during the 2003 Northeast Blackout. (Submitted by Rebecca Canzio)

“We also saw guests really struggling up the six flights of stairs,” Canzio said. “There were older guests arriving who had luggage to carry. It quickly became very warm and uncomfortable, and their rooms were quite scorched.”

Canzio’s mother offered to host everyone at her LaSalle home, where guests could eat and drink and, most importantly, refresh themselves.

Although Canzio said there was no alternative for people to be entertained, she recalled that the atmosphere had a calming effect on her and her soon-to-be husband, Michael.

“We were really worried about some of the details, but everyone else was reassuring us that none of these things really mattered,” Canzio recalled. “We were all together and [they said,] ‘You’re getting married'”.

And they did. But not before having even more setbacks.

“Friday was the worst day of the weekend,” Canzio said.

I was getting calls from Fogolar Furlan club staff not sure if they could arrange the reception. The hairdresser and his guests who couldn’t get gas because the stations were closed.

A bride dancing on a dance floor at a wedding with many other people
Canzio’s wedding reception was held at the Fogolar Furlan club in Windsor. The club had called Canzio the day before, saying they weren’t sure they could organize the reception due to the 2003 Northeast blackout. (Submitted by Rebecca Canzio)

“Every time I heard a new change or a new glitch, it was a stab to my heart,” Canzio said.

Relief came later that night when the power came back on just before the rehearsal dinner. But it was a false dawn.

“Upon arriving at the restaurant where we would receive about 50 guests for the rehearsal dinner, we discovered that the power had gone out again,” he said.

Every time I heard a new change or a new glitch, it was a stab to my heart.-Rebecca Canzio

It was feared that out-of-town guests would not be allowed to stay at the hotel, but they eventually stayed overnight. Canzio said the hotel did a good job of trying to make people as comfortable as possible.

She arrived on Saturday, and except for the fact that Canzio’s makeup artist couldn’t receive her, everything went smoothly, although there was some déjà vu during the reception.

“We were dancing and the power went out,” Canzio recalled. “I think someone just stepped on a wire because within 10 seconds, the power came back on and everyone started laughing.”

Canzio described that moment as the theme of the entire weekend.

What has happened since then?

François Bouffard, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Montreal’s McGill University, said power grids are designed to be “bulletproof” and restarting them takes time.

Since 2003, power producers have ensured that a similar outage never happens again. Bouffard said the process now involves connecting wind and solar power to the grid.

“The nice thing about having wind and solar power is that they come in smaller parts,” he said. “So if you lose one, the pain isn’t as deep as losing a big powerhouse like Bruce [Power nuclear plant] or Darlington [Nuclear Generating Station].”

The biggest change since 2003 is the implementation of operating standards.

“Prior to 2003, there were no industry standards that were met in North America,” said David Robitaille, senior director of market operations at the Independent Electricity System Operator, a body that oversees the power system in Ontario.

A wedding party posing for a photo outside the front door of a church
The bride, groom and their guests outside Sacred Heart Church in LaSalle. Power was largely restored on Canzio’s wedding day after two days without power. (Submitted by Rebecca Canzio)

“Now, we have mature industry standards that we operate to and are audited every three years,” Robitaille said.

For Canzio, his family and friends have taken a comedic approach to remembering the weekend.

“There have been a few jokes over the years,” he said. “We used a lot of puns to commemorate the blackout part of our wedding experience.”

A brown haired woman in a blue dress sitting next to a short white haired man in a white polo shirt
Rebecca Canzio and her husband Michael, shown in a recent photo, have been married for two decades. She says her family and friends have marked her anniversary with jokes and puns about the 2003 Northeast Blackout. (Submitted by Rebecca Canzio)

Throughout his ordeal, the minister sent a reassuring message.

“It was very supportive and reassuring for him to constantly remind us that you don’t need electricity to get married, you just need love,” Canzio said. “That really resonated with us and he has stayed with us.”

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