NYC steam pipe explosions and how I dislike panic
On Wednesday July 18th, a steam pipe from 1924 buried deep beneath the city streets exploded in midtown Manhattan. We’d had some very heavy rains that morning, and news reports state that cold water falling on the pipe created condensation which changed the pressure resulting in the massive, tow truck-swallowing chasm in the middle of Lexington Ave., a concrete hailstorm that coated the sides of buildings 12 stories up, and sent pedestrians shrieking down the sidewalk. Consolidated Edison, or ConEd as it’s known around here, owns most of the city’s steam pipe network, which they bought from the New York Steam Pipe Co., a company that provided steam heat to some of midtown’s most famous landmarks in the late 19th Century.
I was literally one block away from the explosion as it happened. I work on 3rd Ave. at 40th St. The pipe exploded at 41st and Lexington, one short block away. There was about a millisecond of pause before nearly every pedestrian on the street started screaming and running, pushing and shoving, and generally acting totally and completely terrified.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I like to spend at least a few seconds trying to suss out what the “disaster” may be before going into panic mode. Panic mode often causes more trouble than it averts. Yes, it might get you out of immediate danger, but generally speaking, panicking doesn’t do much to help a situation and can often make it worse. Panicking also shows you what human nature is all about. When lives are on the line, the “me first” survival instinct comes bolting out of people, taking over their manicured personalities with the intensity of an unwelcome possessing spirit.
I was pushed, shoved, and trampled out of the path of their anxiety until I found someplace to take cover. One block from the erupting steam pipe, I took a moment to consider what this could be. Looking at the color of the steam, its sound, and my knowledge of the area where the pipe burst, I concluded “this is a steam pipe explosion.” It took me about 5 seconds to reach this conclusion. Another calmer woman nearby eyeing the disaster looked my way. I told her what I thought and she agreed. We shrugged to each other as watched hundreds of people screaming and yelling, caught in their knee-jerk reactions that this was another terrorist attack. It is not good for the mind, body, or soul to jump to such conclusions. While I appreciate the anxiety most New Yorkers feel after 9/11, there is a part of me that stops before outright panic grips me. A panic horde of humans is at least as dangerous to others, if not more so, than an exploding steam pipe. People ought to remember this before they go pushing and shoving and stepping all over their fellow humans.
At the very least, this explosion has shown how ConEd’s maintenance of their steam pipe network is rather lacking, and how New York City is still working on dealing with its emergency preparedness. And let’s face it, steam pipes, and most of the pipes snaking around beneath Manhattan’s surface, are old, in need of repair, and we can bet there will be more instances like this week’s. New York City’s infrastructure is aging.
Anyway, in the days after the explosion, life is returning to normal. In fact, the very next morning, businesses on the periphery of the “frozen zone” (including my office building) were open, almost as if nothing different were expected. I went into a deli across the street from my office to get my morning yogurt and there was no hint that anything was different except for the cops and sawhorses blocking pedestrian traffic on 39th Street.
Tourists hold their cameras high above, snapping photos of the confusion around Grand Central Station, a tad sad that their visit to the Big Onion has been sidelined by this minor inconvenience, but also appearing a bit haughty that they’ll have stories of surviving a steam explosion to go home and regale their friends with. Office workers are retelling their explosion stories over and over and over again. You can’t go into a local business where they know you without the obligatory “so…where were you when it happened?”
I appreciate that disasters are scary and there is great fear the world over about terrorist attacks. In New York City, those who were here for 9/11 may have an extra-quick panic response to explosions or other strange ocurences. But there’s something very distasteful about human nature in its raw, panic-stricken form. It shows the selfishness, the lack of concern for others, the me first-ism that is threatening to suck any relevance or gravitas out of our culture. Even in New York City, a long-standing Eden for the head-strong, ambitious, and individualistic, knee-jerk panic does not fit in with a city who views itself as tough, steel-eyed, rational, and capable.
Knee-jerk panic is America at its worst, assuming “it’s all about me! they’re doing it to meeeeeeee!” How can there be no room in a person’s worldview for a freak accident, like rain water collecting on a steam pipe causing it to explode? Has rational thought become an anachronism in a world where you can get whatever you want whenever you want with the click of a mouse, and it’s ok to make generalizations about people for “profiling security concerns”?
There’s one thing about New York that never ceases to amaze me: no matter what is happening, the drive to make money and continue work is relentless. Having been in the city for 9/11, several major snow storms, and now the steam pipe explosion of Summer 2007, I am continuously amazed at how no one and nothing seems to stop. It’s as if the city has gears deep beneath its surface, invisibly animating our lives above.