An 83-year-old steam pipe exploded underground in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, shaking buildings, creating a towering geyser of debris and sending people fleeing in scenes reminiscent of the September 11 attacks.
Officials in New York and Washington promptly ruled out terrorism. One person died of cardiac arrest and about 20 others were injured, some seriously, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference.
Boiling, brownish water and steam gushed geyser-like at least 120 feet high out of a crater about 20 feet wide on Lexington Avenue at 41st Street, one of the busiest areas of New York City near the Grand Central transportation hub.
The scene evoked memories of buildings collapsing in a billow of debris as they did on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan was destroyed.
"We ran down 43 floors thinking we were going to die," said Megan Fletcher, 35, who works for an Australian company in the Chrysler Building. "It looked like when the buildings collapsed on 9/11."
Rescue workers and others covered in soot and mud were being decontaminated at the scene by hazardous materials specialists. "The big fear that we have is there may or may not have been asbestos released," Bloomberg said.
The pipe of 24 inches in diameter was installed under Lexington Avenue in 1924, and it carried steam for a variety of industrial purposes, power utility Consolidated Edison said. The blast may have been caused by cold water getting into the pipe, Bloomberg said.
It was the latest public embarrassment for ConEd, which is under scrutiny for power blackouts, Reuters reports.
The steam cleared around 8 p.m., exposing a crater several feet wide in the street. A red tow truck lay at the bottom of the hole.
Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert said workers were still trying to determine what caused the blast. Kevin Burke, the head of the utility, said the site had been inspected earlier Wednesday after heavy rains flooded parts of the city, but crews found nothing at that time.
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 street, killing three people and sending mud and debris several stories into the air.
That 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, the AP reports.
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