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NY Steam Pipe Burst - Reaction and Air Quality Questions

It was late in the afternoon (5:57pm to be exact) during rush hour on another hot and sticky New York City summer day. Without warning people hear rumblings and then smoke starts to waft skyward. First thoughts of people are of the worst. “We’re under attack.” With the recent “gut feeling” warnings of summertime attacks and the release of the National Intelligence Estimate only days ago, it would be only natural for that to be the first thoughts of many.

All thoughts seemed to converge on a single, dark point yesterday as the thick tower of smoke, chunks of asphalt and plumes of gravel raced skyward from a crater near 41st and Lexington, 12 stories into the sky.

The 200-degree steam was under 150 pounds of pressure per square inch when it exploded near East 41st Street and Lexington Avenue.

Some people, now instinctively with memories of people jumping from the World Trade Center, rushed from their buildings onto the street looking skyward and see smoke rising. It is reported later that smoke rose higher than the nearby Chrysler Building; debris rained from the sky and no one knew exactly what had happened.

How fast emergency response arrived is uncertain from newspaper or broadcast reports at the moment. My daughter who works about a block away from the blast site had gone out with clients and got word via cell phone that her company had been “locked down” (I am told that some people left the building anyway). She and her associates left the restaurant where they were to go outside, and she told me that it looked like smoke from coming from the south, perhaps, at first she thought, from the Empire State Building. She soon concluded that it was something else since they didn’t smell smoke. Another eyewitness is said to have thought that the Chrysler Building was gong to crumble.

Just another summer day in New York City where a 83 year old steam pipe was infiltrated by cold water causing a breach, the explosion and the massive escape of steam. The local utility, Con Edison, say that this particular pipe had been inspected only hours before the rupture.

One person died (as a result of a heart attack), two people were hospitalized in serious condition and more than a dozen others were treated. Possible subsequent health effects are being minimized since it is said that any asbestos that might have been released was wet and therefore was not airborne. But at the same time:

The city health department is recommending that anyone who has metallic-looking soot on their clothing keep those clothes separate from other clothes in case asbestos is present. People inside buildings near the blast should keep windows closed and switch air-conditioners to re-circulate the air.

First Update: Even though air samples taken at the scene came back negative for asbestos, 6 of the 10 samples of debris and dust came back positive.

This wasn’t a terrorist attack and it wasn’t an act of sabotage. It was a breakdown of seriously old underground infrastructure. It also appears that emergency response reacted quickly and decisively. Frankly, you would expect New York City to respond this way. Clearly after the attacks of September 11, emergency response in New York City was under close scrutiny. Former Mayor Giuliani placed emphasis on the response component and Mayor Bloomberg continued the effort and vigilance.

But now, there is the lingering question of what was released into the air (even if “they” say that the asbestos would have been wet because of the steam). This was an unpredictable event. It looks like the reaction and response was quick. The residual health effects, like those after the crumbling of the World Trade Center towers, remain uncertain. This wasn’t a terrorist attack, but it awoke some dormant memories in peoples’ minds. Maybe this is a good thing, as many believe that a blanket of complacency has covered some of us.

"We dealt with it as if it was 9/11," one harried doctor said. And well they should.

My comment to my daughter was that events like this, whether natural or man-made, will occur. The best advice is to be aware of your surroundings. Yet, the possibility exists that terrorist tactics may shift toward more conventional means like car bombs. You can’t be too careful and yet, there is an unpredictable aspect of these times that makes it difficult to be sure how, when or if something will happen.