In the dark for 34 minutes: The inside story of when the lights went out at the Super Bowl

Ray Lewis sits down to discuss the power outage during Super Bowl XLVII, the last game of his NFL career. (3:56)

NEW ORLEANS — There was fear about a terrorist attack, an anxious sprint down 280 feet of stairs and uncertainty about a mysterious guy in a dark uniform who questioned referees on the field about what’s going to happen next.

Super Bowl XLVII was supposed to be remembered for being the first NFL championship game featuring brothers as opposing head coaches — the Baltimore Ravens‘ John Harbaugh vs. the San Francisco 49ers‘ Jim — or for being the final game of Ray Lewis’ Hall of Fame career, but that narrative changed about midway through in a most unexpected way.

“It was the Super Bowl where the lights went off,” John Harbaugh said recently. “The night that the lights went out in New Orleans will be remembered forever.”

The Superdome lost half of its lights for 34 minutes, although it seemed like an eternity for those who were there. Once power was restored, the 49ers narrowed a 22-point lead to two when Colin Kaepernick scored on a 15-yard run with 9:57 left in the fourth quarter. But the Ravens were able to hang on for a 34-31 victory.

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On Monday night, the Ravens return to the Superdome, where they face the New Orleans Saints (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2), nearly 10 years after the league’s most infamous power failure.

“We’ve never learned, we’ve never gotten back to why this happened,” former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said during a recent team reunion. “But it don’t matter, because we got the ring.”

This was a Super Bowl unlike any other, featuring an impromptu game of freeze tag, a motivational speech inspired by a Marvin Gaye song and conspiracy theories.

“I had a lot of questions then. I have a lot of questions now,” Lewis said Wednesday. “Every time I turn on my lights at night, I think about that. How did the lights go out in the Super Bowl?”

Here is the story of the night of Feb. 3, 2013, as told by the people who experienced it:

The Ravens took a commanding 28-6 lead after Jacoby Jones’ record-tying 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half. Three plays later, Baltimore defensive tackle Arthur Jones sacked Kaepernick to set up a third-and-long before the power outage occurred at 7:38 p.m. CT.

Lewis: This is not a movie. This is not Hollywood. This is real time. And I’m saying we get off the field right here, it’s a wrap. They’re done. And it’s like cling-cling [the lights go out]. I said, “What?”

Suggs: It was one of those things, like, “All right, just turn the switch back on. Somebody hit the switch, accidentally hit the light switch off.” But when they didn’t come back on in the first 10 or 15 minutes, we were like, “All right. What, we’re gonna delay the Super Bowl for a day or two?” I didn’t know what [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell] was up to.

Jacoby Jones: You knew they were about to punt the ball to me, right? I just ran it back [108 yards for a touchdown]. Then, somebody was at Buffalo Wild Wings and hit the button.

Solomon Wilcots, CBS sideline reporter: I was thinking terrorist attack or potential public mass [incident]. In our country, that stuff’s even to this day, it’s etched on our mind. I started to walk for the tunnel. I have a wife and children. I want to get back to my family.

Lewis: Guys are in huddles and they’re like, Man, suppose it’s a terrorist attack. And now the game is irrelevant. So now you have to put the game down and say, I’m done with the game because who knows what the freak is about to happen. And why won’t they tell us something? Nobody gave us an answer.

Joe Flacco, former Ravens QB: I was thinking, all right, we’re in the Super Bowl, it’s just a stadium [thing], the lights went out. They have to be able to get them back on. You know, it’s the Super Bowl. This can’t be happening. So I just had trust or faith in the fact that we were in the biggest game in the world, and it was just going to continue to go.

Jim Harbaugh, former 49ers coach: First reaction was “OK, well, we know what to do. We’ve already had two of these.” The generator blew. That’s what happened at Candlestick [Park]. Had [that] happen to us in a preseason game, and then either a Sunday night game or Monday night game against the Steelers. So we knew we’d be going back into the locker room, it’d be at least 30 minutes or more. So we were pretty experienced.

Over 71,000 fans waited inside the Superdome, where the escalators had stopped working, credit-card machines shut down and the concourses were illuminated only by a small bank of emergency lighting. And since the 49ers’ locker room was on the west side of the stadium, which was the side affected by the blackout, they had to stay on the field, and that meant the Ravens were required to stay on the field, too.

Suggs: It was Ray Lewis’ last game, and he was over there on the bike. He’s still being Ray Lewis, trying to go over defenses. We were like, “Ray, the lights are out, man. We can’t play football right now, you know what I’m saying?” But Ray wasn’t going to lose his last game, and we weren’t going to lose it for him, either.

John Harbaugh: I was trying to figure out what the heck we were doing in terms of keeping our guys warmed up. We rested for a while, and we started doing some stretching stuff.

Jacoby Jones: Me and Torrey [Smith, Ravens wide receiver] were playing freeze tag. We were just running around on the field. That’s how you stayed loose. They were saying, “Let’s stretch.” Stretch? I ain’t never stretched in my life.

Wilcots: I begin to communicate with the [TV] truck and cover the story. I’d like to say that we had wonderfully trained, calm people who were prone to leadership in crises. But it was the opposite. It was screaming and chaos with five people in my ear trying to say, “Hey, what do we do?”

Joe Larrew, side judge: [Head referee] Jerome Boger and I are on the field. Some guy in a black uniform, he looked like military, law enforcement, black ops, he said, “I need to report back on your plan. What are you going to do?” Jerome and I look at each other. I said, “Well, when they tell us to start the game, we’re going to start the game.” And he looks at us, and I thought maybe he would get the sense that I was trying to be funny, but he looks at me and says, “Roger that.” And then he turns around and walks away.

I turned to Jerome and said, “Do you remember the movie ‘Die Hard’? Remember the FBI guys that came into the scene and took charge?” … I said, “That’s Agent Johnson from ‘Die Hard’!” I don’t know if the word is concerned, but that would be highly unusual for us to be dealing with somebody in a so-called uniform.

John Harbaugh: We had to practice over at the Saints [practice facility] on [Thursday] night because the [Tulane baseball] field was too hard. So at the end of practice it was getting dark, and really it was too dark to practice. And we had two more plays and the song came on, one of my favorite songs, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. [Near the end of the delay], I told the guys: “I’ll remind you of that Motown song. There ain’t no mountain high enough, and there ain’t no valley low enough, and there’s nothing that’s going to keep us from winning this championship. Not this, and not nothing. We’re going to win this game, no matter how long it takes.”

Jim Harbaugh: I handled it the way we had handled it the two previous times [the 49ers experienced delays], and that was something that had worked. It’s usually 10 minutes of loosening up and then we’ll play again, just like we’ve done the last two times that this happened to us. Just save your energy. There’s no sense in having any nervous energy.

Flacco: We probably should have done a lot more [during the delay]. We hadn’t been out there as an offense since the second-to-last drive of the first half. We came out of a really, really long halftime, too, and we ran the opening kickoff back and they got the ball. We probably didn’t have the ball for an hour. We came back flat.

Over the years, Lewis, Suggs and Jones have said they don’t believe the blackout was an accident. Lewis even brought it up during his Hall of Fame speech. Suggs has suggested Goodell wanted to stop Baltimore’s momentum. Jones offered another theory based on an underdog Ravens team that was about to run away with the victory.

Jacoby Jones: That [power failure] was Vegas. I’m born and raised from New Orleans. The lights ain’t go out in the Superdome during [Hurricane] Katrina. But it does in the Super Bowl?

Suggs: When I was younger, I was kind of a rebel. We’ll never know what happened. But yeah, I used to always stir the pot and was like, “We’re messing up the point spread, so they hit the lights on us.”

John Harbaugh: I do think there was a second shooter for [President John F.] Kennedy, but I don’t necessarily buy into this particular [conspiracy theory].

Lewis: What made those lights go out at that time? At that time. Why not go out in the second quarter? Why not go out in the first quarter, when the game was close? When our run was ready to happen, the lights go out. How at this perfect time did that happen?

John Harbaugh: Ray will never be convinced. He’ll always believe there was a conspiracy. But what’s his theory?

Lewis: Just imagine in a movie, somebody’s hand on that switch, and they say, “It’s about to get out of hand. Hit the switch.” I don’t know if that’s the way it played out, but I will tell you, I just want to know. I really do. I want to know how did that happen in a game with so much on the line and so much going on and one of the greatest historic places ever to play a game of football, period. And that happens.

Flacco: Listen, I can go down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole with the best of ’em. But in this case, it just kind of struck me as something happened. I chalk it up to something malfunctioning. Maybe Beyonce’s [halftime] show went a little bit too crazy and the lights went out.

Lewis: Beyonce performed and the lights were working, blinking on and off. And then we get out there and we can’t get them on. Timing is everything. I just don’t know. Somebody knows something. That’s what I’m asking. I want to know that person who knows something, and that’s the person I’ve been looking for the last 10 years. I ain’t found him yet.

The power company, Entergy, replaced cables and the switch gear to the Superdome six months before the Super Bowl. But in the week leading up to the game, CBS experienced irregularities in the electrical current during pregame rehearsals. The lights in the upper bowl also went out for no apparent reason during Beyonce’s rehearsal, which led to her show being put on a separate generator. Still, it didn’t prevent the blackout.

Frank Supovitz, former NFL senior vice president for events: When the lights went out on the west side [of the Superdome], I had this sinking feeling, I won’t tell you I didn’t. There was this release of adrenaline all of a sudden, and we said, “Holy smoke, we’ve got a problem, Houston, and we’ve got to set about fixing it.”

Doug Thornton, facilities manager for the Superdome: When you’re in the control center like that and something happens, you start getting all these calls. The elevators and concessions are down. The 49ers’ locker room is dark because it’s in the west side. Then we get a call coming in, both teams want to leave the field, but they can’t. The 49ers can’t leave, so we can’t let the Ravens leave. And I really think to this day, that’s one of the reasons people in the stadium remained so calm, is because both teams stayed on the field.

Supovitz: There was just this incredible moment of uncertainty. We didn’t know what had happened. We didn’t know why it happened. But the first thing that we asked ourselves was, “What do we tell people?”

Thornton: We had to get a message down to the PA announcer. What was interesting is because we weren’t running on generated power in that NFL control booth, we literally had to tear the sheet of paper out of the book and run it down to the PA announcer in the booth.

Supovitz: The heroes of the day really were the stadium operations team, because they knew when something like this was happening, they had to shut off all the unessential power in the building. It was a good thing they did, because had they not, the other side of the building would’ve gone dark. That was something we would never have recovered from.

Thornton: So in replacing the switch gear, it’s important the equipment be calibrated so that it doesn’t falsely sense an overload. But the electrical equipment was never properly calibrated, either by the manufacturer of the equipment or the power company. This was determined after a weeks-long investigation. Of course, everybody thought the power went out in the Superdome, when in fact the power went out a quarter mile away from the Superdome outside the building. So even though it wasn’t our fault, it became our problem.

Supovitz: After the power was restored, one of the first questions I asked the stadium director was, “Can you tell me this isn’t going to happen again?” Because we didn’t actually know what had happened, other than for some reason this power cable, this feeder cable had failed. So is it going to happen again? And his response to me was really chilling. He said, “I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. It could.”

Thornton: We ran down from the very top of the building. It was 280 feet from the top down to the bottom of the stadium. We took the stairs down. We didn’t want to take the elevator or the escalator. We just ran down the steps as fast as we could to get to the engineering room. There were probably 20 people standing around the two switch gears and staring at them. We said, “Don’t touch anything. Leave it the way it is.” We were all nervous, hanging on through the third and fourth quarter.

Supovitz: That was the longest half of football I have ever worked. I prayed that they were going to keep the ball on the ground and weren’t going to do a lot of passing. I wanted the clock to keep moving and that we could get the game finished before anything else happened in the building.

Thornton: The Super Bowl was flawless up to that point. And to have something happen that’s beyond your control and that’s out literally outside the building a quarter mile away that you had no knowledge about, it just made me sick to my stomach. I was so angry for weeks. I went into a depressed state, just thinking what could we have done.

After Kaepernick’s touchdown run — the longest for a QB in Super Bowl history — narrowed the deficit to 31-29, the 49ers missed the 2-point conversion. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker added a field goal, and the Ravens gave up a safety with four seconds remaining, setting up one last play. Baltimore needed special-teamer Josh Bynes to tackle 49ers returner Ted Ginn at midfield as time expired to seal the franchise’s second Super Bowl title. Before the Ravens kicked to Ginn, Flacco was overheard joking with teammates that they should run from the sideline to tackle Ginn to keep him from scoring the winning touchdown.

Flacco: I obviously wasn’t serious. It was just a funny way to get some nervous energy out. It was one of those hypothetical questions that we could talk about at the dinner table. Like, “Man, I wonder if we did that, what would happen? Would they give the guy a touchdown?”

Suggs: If the lights had never went out, we probably could have put up 56 points on them. But we’ll never know.

Flacco: And thankfully I don’t care, because we won the game. But it’s one of those crazy things. When I watch that game with my kids, and specifically the end of the game, I know we won, but you still get a little nervous because of how close it ended up being.

Larrew: Anytime somebody sees my ring or they find out that I worked the Super Bowl, I’ll say, “Yes, I worked Super Bowl XLVII.” The first thing they bring up is, that’s the one with the blackout. It’s not about Baltimore beating San Francisco or what happened on the field. It was about the fact that we had the blackout. It’s a 100% likelihood that I’ll hear about that before anything else.

John Harbaugh: You dream as a coach to win the Super Bowl, and you see all the different — Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells — and all the different celebrations. The guys get carried off, the Gatorade showers and stuff. I look around, it’s like there’s nobody near me. It’s like, where’d everybody go? They’re running around celebrating.

I realize it’s like they probably kind of knew, “Oh he’s got to go talk to Jim.” It’s not like a normal coach. You’re not going to go over [and] shake a coach’s hand, “good game.” I really actually felt for him and what he was going through, because we’re brothers and we shared a room together for 17 years. We talk all the time. And so I had to kind of get my courage up to go over and say hi, and it was good, but he was disappointed.

Lewis: The way it happened, it means I live the rest of my life as champion. So I don’t know if I want the lights to go out again, if I had to replay it. But them going out, it worked in our favor at the end of the day because we won.

Suggs: When you get that confetti to fall down, and it’s in your [team] colors, you’ve reached the pinnacle. You’ve reached the mountaintop with your brothers. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. I’ve always said, “I’m not going to say it’s better than watching your child being born, but it’s close. It’s close.” So, had we fallen short and didn’t win it, I probably would’ve been like, “Yo, it was the lights’ fault.”

Contributing: ESPN Vikings reporter Kevin Seifert and college football reporter Adam Rittenberg