From: Christine Kearney, Reuters
Published July 19, 2007 12:00 AM

Officials Report Asbestos in Manhattan Explosion Debris

NEW YORK -- Debris from an explosion of an aging steam pipe in midtown Manhattan contained asbestos, New York authorities said Thursday, but no airborne samples of the dangerous mineral fiber were detected.


Six square blocks remained cordoned off around the site of the blast that shook buildings at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday, creating a towering geyser of debris and sending people fleeing in scenes reminiscent of the Sept. 11 attacks.


Officials ruled out terrorism as the cause of the explosion that sent boiling, brownish water and steam gushing at least 120 feet high, saying it could have been caused by cold water getting into the pipe. One person died of cardiac arrest and about 20 others were injured, some seriously.


Subway services on Manhattan's crowded East Side were still disrupted Thursday morning and around 20 blocks of Park, Lexington and Third Avenue were still closed to traffic. Subway trains were bypassing Grand Central Station, which was close to the explosion.


"Air monitoring confirmed no airborne asbestos, however, several of the numerous samples of muddy debris taken from the area were found to contain asbestos," Power utility Consolidated Edison said in a statement.


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The company appealed for anyone in the explosion area to hand in any belongings covered in dust or debris in a plastic bag, so they can be disposed of safely, and urged people still inside buildings in the blast zone to keep windows closed.


"While exposure to asbestos over many years carries known health risks, the brief exposures people may have experienced after last night's steam pipe break are not likely to cause long-term health consequences," said New York City officials.


Asbestos, a once-popular fire retardant, causes some illnesses, particularly lung ailments.


"MIDTOWN VOLCANO"


The explosion left a crater about 20 feet wide on Lexington Avenue at 41st Street, one of the busiest areas of New York City near the Grand Central transportation hub.


The street and buildings around the site were still caked in mud and debris on Thursday morning and a red tow truck was still in the crater.


Marvin Factor, 60, a banker, was stopped from getting to his office in the blast zone by police wearing breathing masks.


"If police are here wearing these masks there must be an issue (with the air quality)," he said. "We deserve to know about it. Aside from 9/11 I don't remember anything as disruptive as this happening."


The scene of the explosion evoked memories of buildings collapsing in a billow of debris as they did on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan was destroyed.


Pedestrians sprinted from the scene, many with cell phones stuck to their ears, some crying. Some were covered in white ash and soot, others in mud. Newspapers showed pictures of shoes lying on the street, discarded by people as they fled the scene.


The New York Post headline dubbed the blast a "Midtown Volcano," and the Daily News said "The Earth Opened."


The steam pipe of 24 inches in diameter was installed under Lexington Avenue in 1924, and it carried steam for a variety of industrial purposes. Its explosion is the latest public embarrassment for ConEd, which is under scrutiny for power blackouts.


Source: Reuters


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