New York City Rocked by Steam Pipe Blast

At the height of evening rush hour yesterday in midtown Manhattan, an eighty-year-old steam pipe buried deep below street level burst, sending a volcanic eruption of high-pressure steam mixed with dirt and crushed concrete hurtling hundreds of feet into the skyline. As thousands of commuters hurrying to Grand Central Terminal to catch trains and subways were jolted and suddenly forced to flee in panic, the nearby thoroughfares began to fill with emergency vehicles of all descriptions. The pressure of the escaping steam was so great that it destroyed the intersection of Lexington Avenue and East 41st Street, normally one of the busiest locations in the United States, and raised a continuous cauldron of roiling gas and debris several stories in height and so loud that onlookers compared its sound to a tornado's.

The famous rail terminal was evacuated and shut down. Traffic was re-routed. Businesses closed. Commuters became pedestrians, with long walks to alternate routes home. Firefighters looked on at the churning mountain of steam with little to do but watch. Police officers cordoned off the area. Emergency medical technicians cared for the injured -- with dozens sent to local hospitals. One person died from heart failure.

Within a few hours, the city's principal provider of electric and steam power, Con Edison of New York, managed to shut down parts of Manhattan's underground system sufficiently to bring the rumbling steam to a standstill. Then the damage assessment and the investigations began. By this morning, a small army of repair personnel was hard at work trying to dig through tons of rubble to reach the source of the explosion. [see last month's story "How to See the Unseen City" for a graphical view of underground infrastructure.]

It was a frightening evening for many New Yorkers. The city's well-known mayor, Michael Bloomberg, began a press conference by reassuring the public that the incident was "not related to terrorism but rather to a fault in our infrastructure." Still, it was little comfort to those who were directly affected. A manager of a supermarket near the blast site spoke yesterday about how the situation reminded him of the September 11 attack on the city. He said he witnessed hundreds of people running through the streets in fear in the moments after the shock wave rumbled through the corridors of the neighborhood's tall buildings.

The damage to the area's infrastructure will put a strain on power delivery today, according to a morning announcement from Con Edison. The utility said: "Con Edison has asked managers of large commercial buildings to reduce their electricity use and is asking residential customers in this area not to use appliances such as washers, dryers, air conditioners and other energy-intensive equipment during peak hours of 1 pm to 6 pm and to turn off lights and televisions when not in use until the cable problems are resolved."

Early speculation on the cause of the explosion centered around a phenomenon known as "water hammer," in which cool water condenses in a closed section of pipe. When that water mixes with steam, pressure in the pipe can skyrocket. The metropolitan area was deluged with a thunderstorm yesterday, during morning rush hour.

The main health fear today comes in conflicting reports on the level of asbestos thrown into the air and onto surfaces in the mixed-use neighborhood. Officials were still attempting to measure the level of the carcinogenic substance used in the insulation of much of the city's aging subterranean power conduits.

The offices of IEEE Spectrum are located seven blocks from the site of the eruption in a high-rise building. No one on the staff of the publication was hurt by the event.

Senior Editor Jean Kumagai recounted her experience watching the emergency as follows:

"I was still at the office at the time. I heard a low rumble before I saw anything -- at first it sounded like thunder, but then it went on and on. I turned around and looked out my window, which faces northeast toward the Chrysler Building. That's when I saw the huge billows of smoke and steam drifting westward and engulfing all of the buildings nearby. I had [an] immediate sickening feeling.

"After maybe 10 or 15 minutes, the radio stations began running reports -- at first they said a power transformer had exploded, later it became a steam pipe. The main thing was that it wasn't terrorists. A huge relief, though, [but] still traumatic for those who were injured, of course."

The thoughts and good wishes of those on the staff of Spectrum go out to the families of those who were killed or injured in yesterday's tragic circumstances.

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