NEW YORK – An underground steam pipe explosion tore through a Manhattan street near Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday, swallowing a tow truck and killing one person as hundreds of others ran for cover amid a towering geyser of steam and flying rubble.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the explosion was not terrorism, though the blast caused a brief panic about a possible attack.
“There is no reason to believe whatsoever that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure,” he said.
Eighteen people were taken to local hospitals, officials said. One person was pronounced dead at Bellevue Hospital from an apparent heart attack, Bloomberg said. Two were in critical condition and two more were seriously injured. The others suffered minor injuries.
The explosion caused chaos as residents and commuters heard a huge blast and feared for the worst. Thousands of commuters evacuated the train terminal, some at a run, after workers yelled for people to get out of the building.
A geyser of steam and mud shot from the center of the blast, generating a roar. The initial burst of steam rose higher than the nearby 77-story Chrysler Building, one of Manhattan’s tallest buildings. The air near the site was filled with debris.
Debbie Tontodonato, 40, a manager for Clear Channel Outdoor, said 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.”
Streets were closed in several blocks in all directions. Subway service in the area was suspended.
There were also concerns about what was spewed into the air. Some of the pipes carrying steam through the city are wrapped in asbestos.
Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert said workers were still trying to determine what caused the blast.
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.