Wednesday, July 18, 2007
My day was pretty uneventful until about 6:10 p.m. tonight, when, out of nowhere, I heard this long, dark rumble come from somewhere outside my office, which is located very close to Grand Central. The noise was low, deep, and noticeable. It sounded like an overactive air conditioner or a loud train coming into a station. Then the AC in my office felt like it kicked up a notch, which I thought was strange because normally the building knocks the AC down a level around 6:30 p.m. But I kept working, thinking that maybe they were fixing a generator in the building or something.
A few seconds later, I heard G. -- an attorney who was working on the 65th floor of the South Tower of The World Trade Center when the second plane hit on 9/11 -- proclaim quite loudly from three doors down that there had been an explosion in a nearby building. A bunch of us then walked into a partner's office that faces east, where, through the window, you could see a huge amount of white smoke that appeared to be billowing out of a building right next door to us. The rumbling was noticeably louder on the east side of our office.
Someone surmised that a boiler had blown out. Someone else thought that a fire had started and gotten out of control. G. didn't give a shit what it was. "We need to get out of here, guys. Now." I thought he was kidding, because he loves to joke around, but when I looked at his face, he was dead serious. His eyes showed a combination of fear, borderline panic, and imploring authority. You could tell he was reliving a really bad experience. We all listened, and after rounding some people up, we got the fuck out of there. Before leaving of course, I grabbed my murse, inside of which I threw some work to do this evening. Couldn't leave the murse.
The elevators were working, so we took one to the ground floor. Once we hit bottom and the doors opened, you could hear the fire alarms in the lobby going off and there were masses of people quickly evacuating the building. It was organized confusion. No one was panicking but you could tell people were very jittery and no one really knew where to go. There was no one directing people, which I found a little troubling. Also disturbing was the fact that since there are no stairs down to the ground floor, only a small escalator, we all had to wait in a deep line just to get outside. It's ridiculous to have to wait for a fucking escalator when something like this happens. I also wondered why there had been no fire alarm on my floor, directing us to leave the building.
Once outside, I was shocked at the number of people who were standing on the street, milling around, looking up, and watching the mess unfold. It was wall-to-wall gawkers. Very few people were actually trying to leave the area. I started walking towards Madison Avenue, which was west and away from where the smoke was coming from. Some people were walking away, but i saw more people standing on street corners gawking at the smoke and talking on their cell phones. Police and fire sirens wailed by, and I just kept walking south, towards Union Square, and hopefully, the L Train to Williamsburg. The only time I stopped was for about three seconds, around 41st Street. I looked east and saw a thick haze with a dark brown core of dirty smoke pumping out of the ground and billowing high into the air, past the tops of surrounding buildings.
I tried to call K. on my cell to find out what the hell had happened, whether it was terrorism, a bad boiler, or something else. My phone didn't work, another echo of 9/11, so I sent her a message on my Blackberry, telling her to call me, which she did a few seconds later. She said that reports were saying that a blown manhole cover had caused the explosion; it wasn't terrorism. Good news, though I suspect that there are a lot more manhole covers in New York City than terrorists at the moment. Fortunately, the subway was running at 33rd Street, so I jumped on a downtown 6 train, got on the L at Union Square, and 20 minutes later, walked in my door, sweaty, tired, and relieved.
Pretty screwed up night. Here are some observations I'd like to share regarding this evening's events:
1. This felt eerily like 9/11. From the evacuations, to the people on the streets, to the scenes of billowing smoke. Even moreso now that I'm home, watching some of the street scenes on the news. One of them shows people frantically running down the street, panic covering their faces, as a huge wave of cloudy smoke chases them from behind. It looked just like the scenes of people running away from the WTC as the buildings fell six years ago. We've been through a couple of scares in this city since then, including a serious blackout a few years ago, but this one felt the most like that day to me.
2. People are fucking stupid, even "savvy" New Yorkers. Maybe we're too confident for our own good. Maybe we've gotten complacent. It's going to cost us, eventually. Tonight, I saw way too many people standing around watching this whole thing happen instead of getting out of the way and leaving the scene. As people were watching everything go down, no one had a clue what that gray smoke may have been hiding. There could have been cyanide, ricin, or some radioactive material in that dirty cloud for all they knew. Yet, most people acted like they were watching a Cirque du Soleil show. They just stood around gawking and calling their friends, as they tried to get a better look at all that exciting smoke! It was unbelievable. When -- not if, when -- we get hit with a dirty bomb, or worse, in this city, a lot of people are going to get sick and/or die needlessly because they'd prefer to gratify their curiosity, rather than get out of danger.
Now Bloomberg is saying that there may have been asbestos in the brown soot that everyone found so interesting. Nice.
3. It's every man for himself, baby! During this entire incident, I didn't hear a single announcement from anyone in authority. Not by the people in my law office. Not by the security staff in the building I work in. Not by the cops outside. It was total chaos. It's amazing how little we've learned from 9/11. We are incredibly unprepared and extremely vulnerable in this city. And yet, we have a ginormous target on our back. My advice, if you happen to find yourself in a situation like this: Don't expect to be told what to do or where to go. The initial moments are total confusion, no one will know what the hell is going on. Ultimately, the only counsel you will have to rely on is your own. Use it wisely, Grasshopper.
4. If this was really caused by a faulty steam pipe that was originally installed in 1924, eighty-three years ago, exactly how decrepit IS the infrastructure in my beloved city? I'm guessing that today's culprit isn't the only suicidal steam pipe living under New York's streets. How bad is it down there? First, we hear stories of electrified metal plates that have killed several dogs and even a person, Jodie Lane, in 2004. And every so often, we get an exploding manhole cover. Now this. Hmmmmm. Maybe we should stop invading other countries for a little while and spend some of those billions on our cities, which are falling apart.
5. I'm really happy I live in Brooklyn now. No further explanation required.