Still jumpy, after all these years

Tonight’s explosion near Grand Central Station was alarming to all of us who were near there. The scariest thing at first was the sound. It was this loud, low rumbling sound, that sounded like a explosion that just would not stop. It just kept going and going. Strange, and scary.

When I first heard it, it was because someone in my office whose windows face 43rd Street came out of her office to say that there was some sound coming from outside and she was concerned… As soon as she opened her door I could hear it. I went over to the window, and saw people — not a few people, but hundreds of people — running away from Grand Central. I probably went pale, and my heart pounded. Ughhh. Now what. Well, I decided it was best to close the offices, to get everybody out of there, because we just did not know anything at all, except that whatever it was was very close, and it wasn’t over yet. We had heard a rumor that a building had partially collapsed, that it was leaning, that others might be in danger, yada yada yada. None of that was true, thankfully. But still, we didn’t know. So we all left, to gain some distance from the area.

As it turned out, it was a steam pipe. Even if it was wrapped in asbestos (which we still don’t know as of this writing), and even though several people were seriously injured, it was not as bad as many of us were imagining it might be. Ultimately, it was a pipe that burst. A big one, yes; under the ground, yes; carrying a lot of steam pressure, yes. But in the grand scheme of things, a 30 foot diameter hole in the ground is not going to ruin New York.

So why were we imagining it might be something more?

Look at the picture. There would be no way for any regular traffic to move through a street like this. It was difficult enough for emergency vehicles to get through. Even with all the “surge” practice that the police department has been doing, flying through the streets in carefully choreographed caravans involving dozens of police cars at once, they don’t have the means to rehearse with the rest of us in the streets. They don’t have the ability to coach us to behave in the most effective way. And so we don’t. And so we’re standing there in the middle of the street, with our cell phones and digital cameras, instead of getting out of the area, making way. Any chance we have of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, well, that’s just the way it’s going to be.

Some friends of mine, who live well outside of New York City, but who have spent enough time here to lay some claim to knowledge of its moods and vibrations, were kind of critical of those of us who during the Big Blackout of 2003 thought at first that it might be a terrorist act.

Here’s the deal. The blackout wasn’t a terrorist act. This steam pipe explosion wasn’t a terrorist act. But what was clear to me then and now was that during those times of “infrastructural breakdown,” we were sitting ducks. Any terrorist waiting for a perfect opportunity to take advantage of us, to kick us while we’re down, had that opportunity on both of these occasions. Fortunately, either they didn’t take it, or perhaps they’re just not very good at what they do, or perhaps we’re really good at what we do. I don’t know. But no further assault was forthcoming either time.

So it does always cause concern when something like this happens in the city. We’re all pretty sure that it’s a matter of when, not if, that something big and bad is going to happen in New York City again. It just doesn’t make sense for it not to. It’s like writing a computer virus. Are people just going to stop doing it sometime? Not when there’s still an uninfected computer standing. It’s just the way things are.

So I’m taking heed of all this. I’m trying to learn a little something about what went on, what went right, what went wrong, what I could have done differently. I don’t plan to be the one caught in the crossfire. I want to see it coming, and be elsewhere.

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