Markets open, but blackout brings auto industry, many other businesses to screeching halt

Friday, August 15th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The biggest blackout in U.S. history couldn't silence the opening bell on Wall Street Friday, but business owners from Manhattan through the Midwest still worried about technical glitches and more outages Friday.

Even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg was ringing the 9:30 a.m. opening bell above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, phone service remained out at some companies, and many employers were advising workers to stay home. In New York, the subways still weren't running for the morning rush, and some commuter rail lines were also shut down.

Boris Kozak, a stock broker with A.G. Wellington, waited early Friday to get into his office building across from the New York Stock Exchange. He expected only two or three of his 16 employees to show up for work.

``I'd like it to be normal day but unfortunately that's not possible,'' he said.

The power went out in New York and parts of Canada and the upper Midwest soon after 4 p.m. Thursday, moments after New York's financial exchanges closed for the day. But countless other businesses were forced to lock up early.

From Wal-Mart stores in Canada to gas stations in Ohio, the blackout crippled retailers. Phone lines were overloaded, ATMs didn't work in affected areas and power outages at nearly a dozen airports plunged the nation's air travel into disarray.

Much of North America's automotive manufacturing was paralyzed as plants lay idle Friday morning. More than 35 assembly and other plants operated by General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the world's two largest automakers, were affected by the cascading blackout, and factories run by DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group and Honda Motor Co. also were idle.

GM's towering world headquarters in downtown Detroit was dark Friday morning, and spokesman Pat Morrissey said more than a dozen of its plants were closed, and only skilled trades and maintenance personnel were reporting for the first shift. No decision had been made on the second.

``We'll reassess and determine our next step as the day goes on,'' said Ford spokesman Ed Lewis.

The American Stock Exchange, NYSE and Nasdaq reported minimal interruption after the close of trading. All had backup power generators, and the power was restored to Wall Street after 6 a.m. Trading at the American Stock Exchange was delayed because the trading floor wasn't air conditioned, but Nasdaq was open.

``We have not received reports of major disruptions,'' at banks or other financial institutions, said U.S. Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols.

The outages caused minimal ripple effects on western exchanges, including the Chicago Board of Trade and Pacific Exchange. Officials credited technology upgrades of the Y2K era and emergency plans made after Sept. 11 for making them ready to work through a crisis.

``It's been business as usual, other than for some meetings to talk about contingency plans,'' said Connie Dotson, a spokeswoman for E-Trade Group, a major online stock brokerage that held its usual after-hours trading session following the blackout.

Investors in Asia largely shrugged off the news, with the Tokyo Stock Exchange climbing slightly at Friday's open, before retreating later in the session.

But even as the nation's financial industry breathed a sigh of relief, the airline industry found itself practically frozen when the nation's busiest air corridor, New York's three area airports, went dark.

``Every airline in the world flies into and out of New York,'' said Delta Air Lines spokesman John Kennedy. The blackout also closed airports in Toronto Montreal, Detroit and Cleveland.

At LaGuardia Airport Thursday night, travelers sprawled out in terminals, stretching out on benches and using luggage as pillows.

Street vendors wandered in selling fruit, water was handed out for free and most air travelers gave up on trying to get to a hotel.

Anthony Demaris, a 24-year-old trying to get home from Orlando, Fla., attempted to navigate his way around LaGuardia for 45 minutes before giving up.

``I have a hard enough time finding my way around New York when it's not pitch-dark out,'' he said.

Ground transportation was hit just as hard. Traffic lights went out just as people left work in places like New York and Detroit, causing history-making traffic jams. Many abandoned their cars and decided to trudge home on foot, or take advantage of a nearby bar or ice-cream shop selling their quickly warming stock for cheap. Amtrak canceled several routes.

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