Thursday, July 19, 2007

A New York steampipe explosion causes a slight frisson of fear

Shortly before six o’clock last night, an underground steam pipe in Manhattan exploded.

A geyser of asbestos-laden steam, taller than the 77-floor, 1,046 feet tall Chrysler building a block away, jetted into the air and continued roaring out of the ground for more than two hours before it was brought under control. The east side 4, 5 and 6 subways, formerly known as the Lexington Avenue Line, came to a complete stop from lower Manhattan to 86th Street, a bit more than two miles to the north of the midtown mishap.

Some of the news coverage would lead you to believe there was instant panic. Judging from news station footage of people running away from the steam, and shoes left in the street, it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t some panic.

And people most certainly were wise to run out of geyser range. Two people were brought to a local hospital, one with third degree burns over 90 percent of his body, the other with 60 percent burns. There also has been one death reported so far, evidently someone who suffered a heart attack fleeing the scene.

But all the panic seems to have been confined to the area immediately adjacent to the steam geyser. I was on a Madison Avenue bus. I became aware that something unusual was afoot at approximately 6:15 PM, as the bus passed 41st Street, the cross street on which the explosion occurred, two blocks to the east.


I happened to be on the left side of the bus, looking out the window toward Fifth Avenue. I saw all of 41st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue jammed literally wall-to-wall with people, all of them looking eastward. So I looked east as well, expecting to discover a street fair of some kind. Instead, I saw a wall of grayish brown smoke so close by and so opaque that I thought whatever had happened must have happened only a few dozen feet away, not two blocks.

Now I became more aware of the sirens of fire engines, police cars and ambulances – a background cacophony so commonplace in New York that must of us unconsciously tune it out.

Around me, people were picking up cell phones. And they began quietly asking questions. “Do you know what it is?” “What happened?”

The words you didn’t hear spoken were “9-11” and “Al Quaida,” although they were most assuredly as top-of-mind for my fellow passengers as they were for me. There was no screaming. No panic on the bus. Nor did I see any on the street outside. People were either standing together and watching, or walking away with deliberate but not extraordinary speed.

One passenger announced loudly, “I’m getting off at the next stop,” and did so. This may have been a mistake. As the TV news announced later, there was asbestos from the steam pipe in the air nearby. (Note: Even more recent reports now say the air is clean. Whether it was at the time is uncertain.)

I tried to call home. It took several attempts. Evidently the cell phone towers were jammed by thousands of callers simultaneously trying to assure people at home that they were okay.

The bus suddenly seemed to be creeping at a snail’s pace, even for a New York City bus at rush hour. Eventually I reached the voice mail at home and left word that there had been an explosion of some sort in midtown but that I was okay, on a bus stuck in traffic that would probably make me quite late for dinner. I also asked, “When you get this, would you please turn on the TV and see if there’s any word on what’s going on? Then call me.”


It turned out that the cell phone towers were still sporadically jammed. After several attempts, my caller reached me some 20 minutes later. By then the bus was at a gridlocked standstill at Madison Avenue at 57th Street, less than a mile further north.

Police cars – I counted 11 of them in a row although there may have been more – were standing still on West 57th Street, lights flashing, sirens howling, unable to get through. I realized that nowhere in this immense traffic jam had I seen a police or traffic officer trying to direct the chaos and keep things moving. Nor did I see any police officer get out of his patrol car to do so.

“The TV news says it was a transformer that exploded on Second Avenue,” I was told.

That was misinformation as it turned out, misinformation both about the cause and the precise location of the explosion – which occurred on 41st and Lexington Avenue. But at least it brought relief that terrorists had not blown up Grand Central Station or the subways and commuter rail lines below it, the first thought that occurred to me. I passed along the word to my fellow passengers. Most also seemed relieved.


Given that nothing was moving, I began to wonder how many private cars were contributing to the gridlock. So between 42nd Street and 60th Street I spent a considerable part of the time staring out the window.

I saw almost none of what you might call commuter automobiles. Taxis were the kind of vehicle I saw most often. The next most common variety of car was chauffeur driven, black, and tended to have one passenger in the back seat. Most were either either standard limos of the Town Car variety, or black Cadillac Escalades. Busses were the next most frequently occurring kind of vehicle, followed by emergency vehicles of all kinds.


As of rush hour this morning, the Lexington Avenue subway lines were still out of service south of 86th Street. Lexington Avenue in the immediate area was still blocked off, pending an investigation into how badly the asbestos had been spread around.

I turned on television while I was getting dressed to discover that the city of Phoenix, Arizona was rejoicing. They’ve gotten more money from the Department of Homeland Security this year.

And by the way, I’ve heard not so much as one word of concern about New York so far from either Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff or the Deciderer-In-Chief. Well, from the window of my bus I did see an Escalade with its own flashing lights and siren trying to get away from the center of the action. So maybe you guys or one of your political appointees was aware of the situation after all and distancing yourselves from it as fast as you could.


Q: Why are there steam pipes under New York’s Streets?

A: Consolidated Edison, the local power company, uses steam to drive the turbines that drive its electric generators. Over eighty years ago, somebody at Con Ed, as we call it here, got the bright idea to sell the steam for use in heating buildings. Those underground pipes conduct the steam from the power plant in Queens to offices in Manhattan.

Q: But it’s summer. Who’d want to heat a building when you’ve been having 80 and 90-degree temperatures?

A: Nobody. But the steam also can be used to cool the buildings. I’m not sure how. Ask your local physicist or heat exchange engineer.

Q: When I visited New York last winter, I saw steam coming out of chimneys protruding from the asphalt. Did that have something to do with Con Ed steam?

A: Yeah.

Q: Where did the asbestos come from?

A: It was the insulating material in common use over 80 years ago, when those pipes were first installed.

Q: But you just said that was over eighty years ago! How come there isn’t a pipe replacement or asbestos abatement program in News York that could have fixed the problem?

A: The abiding philosophy here seems to be, “If it ain’t busted, don’t fix it.” I’m strongly in favor of that philosophy when it comes to invading other countries. I’m not sure how I feel about it in relation to New York’s infrastructure. Mayor Bloomberg’s too busy thinking about running for President and trying to ram through congestion pricing to bother a whole lot with everyday matters like steam pipes.

Look, it’s not entirely clear whether Michael Bloomberg thinks that focusing on keeping the city from crumbling to ashes is boring. And Con Ed won’t budge until somebody grabs its chairman by his privates and twists real hard, because capital expenditures for pipe replacement and asbestos abatement produce no additional revenue and suck money out of the bottom line.

Of course, now Con Ed is going to have to replace at least one piece of pipe anyway, and they’re facing massive law suits from the dead and injured victims of the explosion. New York juries don’t take kindly to utilities that scald passers-by over 90 percent over their bodies. So now Con Edison faces a double whammy of unexpected costs. Disclosure: I happen to own a few hundred shares of Con Ed, and the stock had been going down even before this happened. Looks like now I’m really screwed.

Q: Okay Crank, what lessons have we learned from this?

A: Several:

1.New York’s emergency planning doesn’t seem to be all bad, but some bozo seems to have forgotten that people like to get away fast from smoke, steam and, say, radiation from dirty bombs. The city, from what I saw yesterday, has made no provisions to unclog gridlocks during these emergencies to speed people away from danger. It doesn’t take much technology. A tough-looking cop at each strategic intersection making “go” and “stop” hand signals would probably do it. This might also help emergency vehicles get through to emergencies quicker. Many of those vehicles were gridlocked with the rest of us yesterday.

2.Congestion pricing isn’t going to do diddley-squat to stop New York limo jams. Anyone who can afford commute with his own Escalade and driver, or who can afford to rent a commercial limo to take him to and from work at roughly $50 a pop isn’t going to be the least bit fazed by an $8 congestion pricing plan. That’s chump change to the people who are really crowding the streets. If anything, congestion pricing will simply make commuting a tad faster for limo passengers who place their own comfort over the environment.

3.If Mayor Bloomberg really wants to do something about congestion, he should impound all of his friends’ limousines.

4.I know this is slightly off the subject, but the real way to lessen traffic congestion is to make public transportation more attractive. When electronic metrocards made lower fare programs available some years ago and service improved, so did ridership on the subways. Instead of giving New Yorkers and out-of-towners a carrot for riding the subways instead of driving, Michael Bloomberg is trying to club them over the head with an $8 stick.

5.Based on my personal experience, the local transit authority did a hideously bad job of communicating with its riders. Busses are connected to a transit radio system that regularly broadcast route instructions to drivers. And drivers have PA system. Do you think somebody would contact the drivers and ask them to explain – while we were all frozen in traffic and suffering our frissons of fear – that it was only a steam pipe? Nah! “Keep ‘em sweating.”


Good pix and wildly hyperbolic Murdoch-style reporting here:

1 comment:

Little Blue PD said...

Great roundup! New York! What a town!

So now we have Con Edison and terrorists to worry about.

It happened on the West side of 41st and Lexington Ave. I was like a block away in the office. At first I thought it was thunder, but it just kept going for like over 20 minutes it seemed, then I was out of the area, but they say it lasted for hours, and it was very very loud.

Very scary, the NYPD says it was not terrorism. They say it was a steam explosion. Smoke and steam went up over the 45th floor. There was no black smoke like a fire though. Out the window I saw people running from the area. It was pretty scary, I was positive while in the area that it was terrorism.

There are pictures of a big craterish hole in the middle of the street with a red tow truck sitting in the hole. Terrorists would have had to go under the street to plant some bomb there. That's not the way they would have done it. We all can think of much more effective and easier ways, and better places.

It happened right around the corner from one of the biggest creators of traffic congestion in NYC.

Will Mayor Bloomberg do anything about Park Ave. being blocked off at 42nd street?

It certainly supports his claim that the city is hugely congested.

Check out the map! Tell your friends!

Check it out!