In this image taken from video, the night sky is illuminated in a bright, blue color after an explosion in the Queens borough of New York, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. New York police say a transformer exploded at a Con Edison facility in Queens. The explosion caused a bright, blue light that illuminated the New York skyline and caused a stir on social media. (AP Photo/Sophie Rosenbaum)

NEW YORK (AP) — Electric utility Con Edison was working Friday to figure out what caused a high-voltage equipment failure that unleashed an otherworldly flash of bright blue light in the night sky over New York City.

This photo shows blue light over New York, as seen from Manhattan Brough of New York on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. New York police said a transformer exploded at a Con Edison facility in Queens on Thursday, causing some power outages. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

The event Thursday caused power outages, briefly grounded flights at LaGuardia airport and filled social media feeds with eerie photos, questions and jokes, to the point that even the New York Police Department tweeted there was “no evidence of extraterrestrial activity.”

While Con Ed initially described a “brief electrical fire” at a power substation in the Astoria section of Queens, spokesman Bob McGee said Friday that what happened was an electrical flash after a malfunction involving 20-foot-high (6-meter-high) equipment with cables carrying 138,000 volts. By comparison, a standard U.S. household gets 120-volt service.

“It was like a lightning bolt, essentially,” McGee said.

Substations transform electricity that comes in from power plants at high voltage down to lower voltage levels, and send it on for use.

Normally, a circuit-breaker-like device intervenes and quickly cuts off power to the affected equipment if there’s an electrical fault, but that apparently didn’t happen Thursday, he said. Instead, the electricity kept cycling through, causing the flash.


Across much of the nation’s most populous city, people looked up around 9:12 p.m. to see a pulsing orb of blue light that lasted a minute or more in the sky over Queens, casting the skyline into a strange silhouette.

“It was pitch black outside, and then suddenly the whole side of the eastern sky was lighting up and changing colors,” said Madeleine Frank Reeves, who saw the lights from her Upper West Side apartment.

Onlookers invoked supernatural and sci-fi screen classics — “Ghostbusters,” ”Independence Day,” ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and more. There was, of course, a hashtag — #alieninvasion — and a tongue-in-cheek take on a real scientific phenomenon: the “Astoria Borealis.”

Witnesses’ video showed plumes of smoke pouring from a piece of equipment at the substation, and nearby residents reported hearing banging or roaring sounds. Those likely were caused by the electrical arc going to the ground, McGee said.

The arc subsided on its own, he said. No one was injured.

Meanwhile, power flickered or went out at least briefly around northern Queens. Although LaGuardia has backup power, outages closed parts of the airport and affected some subway service; both were back up and running by 11:30 p.m.


McGee didn’t immediately have information on whether there had been any recent problems with or repairs to the equipment that failed.

The utility will examine instrument readings to try to pinpoint the cause of the malfunction, he said.

Thursday wasn’t the first time a substation power problem has illuminated the city’s skies with a strange glow. Superstorm Sandy flooded a Con Ed substation in 2012, a producing a great, greenish flash and plunging a swath of Manhattan into darkness.


Associated Press writers Jim Mustian and Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: