Trapped in a Power Blackout

by Lisa Bendall
(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Our family was affected in the great northeast blackout of 2003, which affected millions of Ontarians and lasted several days. When the power failure hit in late afternoon, knocking out elevator service, my husband was trapped on the 6th floor of his Toronto office building. He is quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury and uses a power wheelchair, so he had no easy way to get out. The local fire department was busy rescuing people in emergency situations – my husband, although trapped, was at least safe.


Meanwhile, I was on the sixth floor of another office building in another part of downtown Toronto. I had no way to reach my husband, since both our office telephone systems relied on electricity to operate. Not knowing if he was all right, I helped evacuate someone in my own office who used a manual wheelchair – two co-workers carried her precariously down a pitch-black stairwell, while I stayed one step ahead so I could warn them when each staircase ended.

Fortunately, my husband had found assistance from other workers in his building. His power chair is too heavy to lift down stairs – an attempt to do so would break it. But someone had the idea of carrying three separate loads: my husband (in a regular chair), the heavy battery pack from his wheelchair, and then the rest of the wheelchair. Once rescued, he went looking for me. Of course, we still had no ability to phone each other. I had already picked up our four-year-old daughter up from daycare, and was looking for him. We managed to find each other and commute home!

The challenges didn’t end there. At home, my husband relies on the assistance of personal attendants. The one who was scheduled to work for him that evening was actually trapped in an elevator in north Toronto when the power went out. He managed to free himself and make his way to our home, albeit several hours late. We admired his perseverance. He assisted my husband by candlelight as best he could. It was a long night, but we managed.

What helped in this situation was having plenty of candles, flashlights and batteries close at hand. That way, even fumbling in the dark, I was able to find them. People with disabilities should also ensure they store extras of any critical supplies. We now keep a “disaster box” in the basement with items my husband really couldn’t do without. And my husband’s workplace has since invested in a fire-department-style evacuation chair to make it easier to help their many staff with disabilities exit the building in case of elevator failure. Hopefully we won’t face another situation like this again, but being prepared does give peace of mind.

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