Manhattan's Big Rush-Hour Scare

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Steam billows out of a hole in the asphalt at the corner of 41st St. and Lexington Avenue in New York, July 18, 2007, after a steam pipe exploded.

In a city that knows it is a constant target for terror, the huge burst of white steam, a towering column of almost biblical ferocity, was enough to kindle several moments of panic. An underground pipe explosion near Grand Central Terminal during rush hour Wednesday evening spooked commuters and tourists alike in New York City. "The whole ground was shaking," one young woman heading away from the scene said into her cell phone. "It just came from nowhere," said another, "and then everyone was yelling, 'get out of here!'"

Thousands of travelers took that advice, evacuating the terminal — some at a run — and flooding onto the street outside. New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said the incident was not related to terrorism. Still, many police officers busy shepherding people away from danger could offer no ready explanation for the blast, and the atmosphere at the scene was tense. "Everybody was a bit confused," Heiko H. Thieme, an investment banker in midtown, told the Associated Press. "Everybody obviously thought of 9/11."

Bret Sayre, a hedge fund accountant, was walking home with a colleague when he saw the fog. "We looked up and saw about 150 people running at us, followed by about 10 seconds of confusion. And all of a sudden, smoke started to billow out of a side street a couple blocks up," he says. "That was when we joined in the crowd."

About half an hour after the explosion, from behind yellow caution tape, dozens of rubberneckers snapped camera phone shots of the steam that was billowing as high as the nearby Chrysler Building. A small school bus sat a few feet away from the site, abandoned. TV helicopters showed what appeared to be pickup truck in the crater created by the explosion. Nearby, an elderly woman covered in dark brown debris and clearly alarmed approached two police officers, who offered to call an ambulance or drive her home. A few blocks away, some of the crowd formed a knot around an ambulance, where paramedics tended to two people who sat on the curb with their heads wrapped in white bandages. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg later said that one person died of cardiac arrest, several firefighters suffered minor injuries and some "20-odd civilians" had been hurt, some seriously, some less so.

There was no reason to believe that the incident was nothing more than "a failure of our infrastructure," the mayor said at a press conference about two and half hours after the explosion. "No terrorism... No criminality." According to Con Ed, the incident was caused by an operational problem in the area. Millions of pounds of steam course through pipes below New York City streets every hour, heating and cooling thousands of buildings. They can be prone to breakage: in 1989, a massive steam explosion that sent mud and refuse several stories high killed three people. Bloomberg said that a 24-inch steam pipe, installed in 1924, had broken. The likely causes, he added, were cold water from a massive morning rainstrom getting into the pipe or a yet undiscovered water main break. He said the main concern was that asbestos was released into the air and that tests were being conducted. Police were wearing gas masks in the street. Bloomberg noted, however, that the enormous amount of steam and water vapor released had probably washed the asbestos out of the air. A clean-up was being planned. [On Thursday morning, city officials said there was no evidence of asbestos in the air but the substance had been found on the ground.]

Only blocks away, except for the occasional wail of a siren, there were few clues that anything had broken the calm of the muggy evening. Sayre noted that people were going about their daily business and said he even spotted some joggers on a nearby street. "It was very surreal," he said.

With reporting from the Associated Press