Shades of 9/11: The Weakness beneath NYC's Surface

Les Payne, Newsday - Tamara Olympia was in the process of printing out a 150-page report when the lights flickered. "I thought there were Con Ed issues," she said of the utility company that inflicts such summer courtesies and worse upon its customers. "Then the floor started to vibrate," she said.

Unreassuring to 11th-floor office workers, the vibration picked up a rumbling sound effect. Olympia said, "I'd felt it before, but never this strong" in her nine years at the 42nd Street building. "The odd thing is that the rumbling and vibration continued for a couple of minutes. Then I heard a loud boom, not gunshots, which sounded from the street."

Suddenly, there was a loud gasp in the office, and then silence. A staff member at the door a few feet away looked confused and shocked, as the blood began to drain from his face. He blurted, "They say a building is collapsing." Olympia looked out the window; the Chrysler Building looked serene; so did the building next door that faced Lexington Avenue.

Inside, things were different.

"I heard people crying and people were running and screaming, 'Get out! Run!'. In the meantime, the floor was still vibrating. I wondered if I could get out before the building collapsed. I thought about 9/11," Olympia reflected. "I grabbed my tote bag, took off my heels and headed for the stairs. Normally I would have gone to the elevator, but I felt I had time." In the din of the panic, an e-mail office alert appeared at 5:57 p.m.: "There is a building collapsing now on 41 St. & Lexington. Go Home immediately! Please be careful as you exit."

Finding no one on the landing, Olympia ran barefoot to the fifth floor and put on her flats. A dozen office workers, "crying and breathing hard," had built up behind her as they found the 42nd Street entrance littered with mud, debris and, eerily, someone's backpack. The back entrance scene resembled, to the untrained eye, the mark of Osama bin Laden.

An underground volcano spewed clean smoke up the sides of skyscrapers at the intersection like hell's breath. Unlike with the World Trade Center, however, the belch didn't leave much on the ground, which Olympia was fine with. Still, because she is an asthmatic, she was concerned about breathing the potentially contaminated ground air and headed north at a fast pace, thinking about 9/11 terrorism. Instead, the explosion was an eighty three year-old underground steam pipe blowing a hole in Lexington Avenue, leaving one person dead and injuring 45 other people. Television news informed Olympia at home that it was not bin Laden, but officials have not convinced her that the air on the streets around her office is not contaminated with asbestos and other pollutants.

The health risks posed by the type of asbestos feared spread throughout the site, is determined by how easily the pipe-insulating substance can be turned into fragments. Con Ed hounds homeowners into stripping uncased friable asbestos from heating pipes, but some owners of older, commercial buildings sometimes skate the rules. The inhalation of asbestos fibers has been linked to lung cancer, and the spread of friable asbestos has become of serious concern in the area of the steam blast.

While police officers directed traffic in high-tech, half-faced respirators with side packs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg toured the cordoned-off area to assure New Yorkers that the air is as pure as the air in Bermuda.

The mayor said, "There is no asbestos in the air." This got Olympia thinking about the post 9/11 assurances of Christie Todd Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator at the time.

Steam-pipe system experts were not as sure, as hazards experts proceeded to clean up the ground area. An official for the labor group, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety said, "The people that are at the highest risk are the cleanup workers."

Unlike natural disasters that tend to blow over quickly, man-made situations don't dissolve so easily. There will be numerous hearings, job shuffling, slick and expensive policy initiatives proposed and - stand by - conspiracy theories. Somewhere now there is probably someone out there developing a hypothesis about a hidden hand, perhaps Osama bin Laden's, behind the steam explosion at Lexington Avenue. Trust me; the incompetence of Consolidated Edison is not enough.

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