New York explosion revives memories of 9/11

A 'volcano-like' underground steam explosion tore through a New York street during rush hour, causing panic and injuries.

New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said the explosion near Grand Central Terminal yesterday evening was not terrorism.

Two people who were critically injured were being treated at New York Weill-Cornell Medical Centre. said hospital spokeswoman Emily Berlanstein. A third patient with lesser injuries was also being evaluated, she said.

In addition, 14 people were taken to Bellevue Hospital, said spokesman Larry Dugan. He said they were being evaluated and had no information on their conditions.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on his way to the scene.

Subway service was suspended because of the explosion.

A titanic geyser of what appeared to be steam and earth continued to erupt from the centre of 41st Street after the blast, generating a tremendous roar.

Heiko Thieme, an investment banker in midtown Manhattan, had mud splattered on his face, trousers and shoes. He said the explosion was like a volcano.

"Everybody was a bit confused, everybody obviously thought of 9/11," he said, referring to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that demolished the World Trade Centre.

Con Edison utility company workers canvassed the area, and police were wearing gas masks on the street.

There were also concerns about what was being sprayed into the air.

A steam pipe explosion near Gramercy Park in 1989 which killed three people sprayed asbestos into the air - a fact that Con Edison later admitted it concealed for days while residents were exposed.

Darryl Green, who works with AT&T, said he could feel the buildings shake, so he and his colleagues dashed down 30 flights of stairs.

"As we came out on to the street, the whole street was dark with smoke," he said.

A small schoolbus was abandoned just feet from the spot where the jet exploded from the ground.

Debbie Tontodonato, 40, a manager for Clear Channel Outdoor, said she thought the rumble from the explosion was thunder.

"I looked out the window and I saw these huge chunks that I thought were hail," she said. "We panicked, I think everyone thought the worst, thank God it wasn't. It was like a cattle drive going down the stairs, with everyone pushing. I almost fell down the stairs."

Advertising executive Saul Gitlin, 44, and his colleagues watched the explosion from their 23rd-floor window.

"I felt the explosion and my building started to shake," Gitlin said. "We saw huge crowds of people running toward the west side," he said. "We couldn't see what they were running away from."

Ernesto Berdejo, who works at Pax, a restaurant in the area, said he saw people running and crying down the street.

He and fellow workers stayed in the street for about 20 minutes, then went back into the restaurant.

"We didn't know what happened - something in the ground, really loud. We thought it was terrorism," he said.

Millions of kilos of steam are pumped beneath New York City streets every hour, heating and cooling thousands of buildings, including the Empire State Building.

The steam pipes are sometimes prone to rupture, however. The 1989 explosion sent mud and debris several storeys into the air.

That explosion was caused by condensation of water inside a steam pipe.

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