At least one person is dead and dozens were injured when a steam explosion ruptured the intersection at 41st Street and Lexington Avenue, right next-door to Grand Central Station, at the height of the Manhattan evening rush hour.
Eyewitnesses described a plume of steam, rocks, mud and flames, followed by a massive shower of debris–concrete shrapnel from the blown-out street surface.
The scene by nightfall was eerily reminiscent to New Yorkers who remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I heard repeated reverberating explosions," said Sandy Brown, a 34-year-old Web site producer who witnessed the blast.
He said it was sheer pandemonium, and that Grand Central appeared to be on fire as hundreds of New Yorkers started running aways from the blast zone toward Park Avenue.
The explosion created a large crater in the street, large enough to engulf a tow truck. The truck’s driver sustained injuries and is in critical condition.
By nightfall, the crater was 35 feet by 40.
At the scene shortly after the blast, fireman Mike Donnelley said he and his fellow officers were looking for survivors and "they are going as close as they can as their protective gear will allow them to get," he said.
A little more than two hours after the blast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived at the scene and talked to reporters. He said the explosion was caused by a rupture in a 24-inch steam-pipe that had been built in 1924; cold water somehow got into the pipe, perhaps as a result of today's storms, or as a result of an undetected water-main break.
Con Edison later told reporters the pipe had been checked earlier in the day, due to the morning thunderstorms that flooded the city, but found nothing wrong.
The mayor said the cause of death in the one confirmed fatality was cadiac arrest; subsequent reports have said only that the victim was a woman who was close to the center of the blast.
But for a long while last evening, it was not clear whether more fatalities were not imminent.
"The data is still sketchy because [it's] divided among a number of hospitals," he said.
The crater, which appears to have been formed when a powerful plume of steam suddenly erupted upward from underground, had Officer Donnelly worried about the "structural integrity" of the surrounding area.
The mayor said there was no indication of gas leaks and that there did not appear to be any loss of power in the area.
Earlier, police department spokesman Paul Browne has released a statement saying only, "A steam explosion on East 41 Street from Third and Lexington Avenue is not terrorist related."
Mr. Bloomberg expanded on that earlier statement.
"There is no reason whatsoever to believe that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure," the Mayor said.
According to the fire departemnt, the first call came into the fire department at 5:56 p.m. about an explosion at the address 370 Lexington Avenue, which is near Grand Central Terminal, according to a fire department spokesman.
Video of the explosion was quickly captured and uploaded to YouTube.
24-year-old Ian Brown was changing his clothes in his brownstone apartment on 40th Street between Lexington and Third avenues when he heard the blast and ran outside to see what happened.
"It was raining rocks," he said.
Another eyewitness who asked not to be identified described an explosion that appeared to him to come out of a building, after which "things starting shooting up."
He said cars and cabs screeched to a halt as their drivers and passengers got out of their cars and started sprinting away.
“I was shocked," the eyewitness told The Observer. "I was scared with everything that happened on 9/11 and I was just wanted to help as many people as I could."
250 firefighters and 300 police officers treated the scene as a five-alarm fire.
By 8 p.m., firefighters with oxygen tanks could be seen seeking relief at a makeshift Salvation Army emergency-services station at 39th Street, off Lexington.
Three firefighters and one police officer were among the many injured, mostly by flying debris.
Not long after the blast, one police officer on the scene appeared to be slumped over in pain as he was being taken into an ambulance.
The 4,5 and 6 train lines were shut down from the Bronx to Brooklyn, but according to some published reports, Metro North lines continued to operate, and Grand Central remained open–though walking there through closed streets was difficult and warnings that an asbestos cloud cloaked the area kept many away.
As of 7:30 p.m., reporters were being pushed back to the block between 38th and 39th Streets on Lexington Ave.
Radio station WINS is reporting that Lexington Avenue is now closed from 34th to 57th Streets, as is Park Avenue from 34th to 54th Streets and Third Avenue from 38th to 42nd Street.
"We’re in the process of isolating the ruptured steam main," a Con Edison spokesperson told The Observer. "We’re assessing for possible collateral damage to our electrical system.
"There are no outages," he said. "We’re testing for asbestos. Kevin Burke, our president, has spoken with the mayor and is working with engineers at the Con Ed headquarters."
"We’re testing for the asbestos," he added, along with a caution: "People should assume that it is [present] until we prove that it’s not."
The area between 40th and 43rd streets, from Vanderbilt to Third Avenue has been designated a “frozen zone” while the city checks for asbestos, Mayor Bloomberg said.
Video via Gothamist.com