Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Big Apple Is Once Again Gripped With the 9/11 Jitters After Blast

At Least One Person Is Killed in Explosion of 83-Year-Old Steam Pipe That Wreaks Havoc in Midtown Manhattan; Blast Comes Amid Controversy Over Cuts in Federal Anti-Terror Funding to New York


Steam and smoke billow from Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan near the Art Deco-spired Chrysler Building after an underground steam pipe exploded Wednesday near Grand Central Station in New York. The blast, which swallowed a tow truck and left a 30-foot crater in the street, killed one person and injured at least 20 others and sent pedestrians fleeing from the area in scenes reminiscent of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (Photo: Daniel Modell/Reuters)

By Skeeter Sanders

As a native of New York City, this blogger, like billions of other people around the world, watched in utter horror on that awful day in September 2001 as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in heaps of dust on live television shortly after two hijacked jetliners smashed into them and exploded, killing over 3,000 people.

Ever since that horrible day, I instantly fear the worst whenever something catastrophic happens in my native city -- even though it's been more than 25 years since I left the "Big Apple." But that's nothing compared to how those who still call New York home feel.

That excruciating feeling struck again on Wednesday when news broke of an underground steam pipe explosion ripping through a Manhattan street near Grand Central Terminal, killing at least one person and injuring at least 20. The blast swallowed a tow truck as panicked pedestrians ran for cover amid a towering geyser of steam and flying rubble.

Was it al-Qaida striking the city again?

The timing of the explosion -- coming just a day after disclosure of a new National Intelligence Estimate that suggested that the Islamic extremist group was intent on attacking the United States -- could not help but to spark fears of another terrorist attack. And for a brief time, there was a panic on the streets of midtown Manhattan.

But Mayor Michael Bloomberg was swift in declaring that the blast wasn't terrorism, but rather "a failure of our infrastructure." The two-foot-diameter steam pipe was installed in 1924. The explosion was the largest of its kind in New York in 28 years.

Chaos Reigns At the Height of the Evening Commute

One person was pronounced dead at Bellevue Hospital from an apparent heart attack, Bloomberg said. About 30 people were injured, at least four seriously. Authorities could not immediately account for how the most seriously wounded victims were injured.

Widespread chaos erupted as Midtown residents and home-bound commuters heard the massive explosion at the intersection of 41st Street and Lexington Avenue — and feared for the worst. Thousands of jittery commuters evacuated the train terminal after workers yelled for people to get out of the building.

A geyser of steam and mud shot from the center of the explosion, generating an earthquake-like shock wave that was felt for a mile in all directions. The initial burst of steam rose higher than the nearby 77-story Chrysler Building, Manhattan's second-tallest skyscraper.

An Eerie Scene Reminiscent of 9/11 Disaster

In an eerie echo of the ash cloud generated by the collapse of the twin World Trade Center towers on 9/11, soot fell from the sky, covering both vehicles and pedestrians. Some pedestrians were soaked from rains of mud. The sky was blackened. And people wandered aimlessly, not knowing where to go.

A city bus was abandoned in the middle of Lexington Avenue, covered with grit. A woman who was bleeding profusely was being helped by police while a man lay on a stretcher in the street.

Debbie Tontodonato, an advertising agency manager, told The Associated Press she thought the rumble from the 6 p.m. explosion was thunder. "I looked out the window and I saw these huge chunks that I thought were hail," she said. "We panicked, I think everyone thought the worst. Thank God it wasn't. It was like a cattle drive going down the stairs, with everyone pushing. I almost fell down the stairs."

Heiko H. Thieme, an investment banker, had mud splattered on his face, pants and shoes. He said the explosion was like a volcano. "Everybody was a bit confused, everybody obviously thought of 9/11," Thieme told the AP.

"We ran down 43 floors thinking we were going to die," Megan Fletcher, who works for an Australian company in the Chrysler Building, told Reuters. "It looked like when the buildings collapsed on 9/11."

Blast Came Just Hours After Flooding Caused By Heavy Rainstorm

Streets were closed in several blocks in all directions. Subway service in the area was suspended. Chris Olert, a spokesman for the city's power company, Consolidated Edison, said workers were still trying to determine what caused the explosion.

Con Ed CEO Kevin Burke said the site had been inspected earlier Wednesday after heavy rains flooded parts of the city, but crews found nothing at that time.

Rescue workers and others covered in soot and mud were being decontaminated at the scene by hazardous materials specialists. There were concerns about what was spewed into the air. Some of the pipes carrying steam through the city are wrapped in asbestos. "The big fear that we have is there may or may not have been asbestos release," Bloomberg told reporters in an impromptu press conference.

Officials wouldn't know test results until later, the mayor said, "but if there was a release it may have washed away with the water that came with the steam."

Controversy Over Cuts in Federal Anti-Terror $$$ to New York

Wednesday's explosion also comes against the backdrop of a controversy over over cuts made last year in federal funding to New York anti-terrorism programs -- and comments last week by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that he had a "gut feeling" that a terrorist attack may be coming inside the U.S. sometime this summer.

Chertoff was pilloried by New York officials in 2006 when his agency cut the city's share of a program for high-threat locations by 40 percent. But Chertoff said Wednesday that 2007 will be New York's "biggest year ever" for anti-terror help from the federal government, announcing that New York's share of anti-terror funds was being increased to $134 million.

The figure, while eight percent higher than last year's allotment, is still significantly lower than the $207 million the city received in 2005. And Chertoff warned states and cities that the checks aren't "annuities or entitlements like Social Security" designed to pay in perpetuity.

"Secretary Chertoff said the preponderance of the threat is still in New York, yet we get 18 percent of the money," New York's Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. "So, it just simply doesn't add up.

"If the preponderance [of the threat of new terrorist attacks] is here, the preponderance of the [anti-terrorism] money should be here," Kelly said.

New York's Biggest Steam Pipe Blast Since 1989

Millions of pounds of steam are pumped beneath New York City streets every hour, heating and cooling thousands of buildings, including the Empire State Building. The steam pipes are sometimes prone to rupture, however.

In 1989, a gigantic steam explosion ripped through a Brooklyn street, killing three people and sending mud and debris -- including asbestos -- several stories into the air. That blast prompted the city to issue a health alert for the asbestos.

The 1989 explosion was caused by a condition known as "water hammer," the result of condensation of water inside a steam pipe. The sudden mix of hot steam and cool water can cause pressure to skyrocket, bursting the pipe.

City on Edge Since 9/11

New York has been on a continuously heightened state of alert ever since the 9/11 attacks and any large scale emergency prompts a certain degree of panic among a jittery population. While the national terror threat alert has been at Code Yellow for months, New York has remained under Code Orange --the second-highest terror alert level.

A similar panic erupted last October when a small plane piloted by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into a high-rise Manhattan apartment building, killing the 34-year-old Lidle and his flight instructor.

That crash immediately touched off fears of a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) put fighter aircraft into the air over numerous U.S. cities as a precaution. Once it was certain the incident was not a terrorist attack, NORAD called its jets back.

And in October 2005, security in and around New York's subways was sharply increased after city officials said they were notified by federal authorities in Washington of a terrorist threat that for the first time specifically targeted the city's transit system.

Ironically, this latest nerve-jangling episode also comes on the 30th anniversary of the Big Apple's infamous "Summer From Hell," which saw New Yorkers sweltering in the city's worst-ever heat wave, terrorized by "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz and victimized by out-of-control looting during a city-wide, 24-hour power blackout.

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Volume II, Number 36
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.