Manhattan Steamer

Hey, kids, want to get an inside look at how the media works? When something crazy happens near you, instead of doing what your parents say and running to the basement, go check it out. Take photos and video.

Wednesday evening as many office workers began their commute a steam pipe ruptured in midtown Manhattan, causing a massive explosion and subsequent geyser in the middle of the intersection of Lexington avenue and 41st Street. One woman died and several dozen were injured. Initially, though, everyone thought it was much, much worse.

We were at Creativity HQ, at 43rd and Third, when it happened. Initially I don’t remember hearing much of anything, a little commotion–nothing more noticeable than any bumps or bangs you’d hear from the second floor above any commerce-heavy New York City street. But for many thousands in that area, myself included, the scariest part wasn’t the explosion itself, but the reaction among the crowds. There’s really nothing to get your heart racing like what we felt looking down from the second floor and seeing people sprinting up the street, looking behind them, faces full of raw, animal panic. The old Indiana Jones lookback. After a second or two of surveying the scene, Jonah, the editor of AdAge, said something to the effect of ‘Guys, we should probably get out of here,’ and everyone walked fairly calmly downstairs.

The initial chaos had calmed a bit in the time it took us to get downstairs. Groups of workers from the building’s offices huddled to make sure everyone in their team had made it out, wondering things like ‘Where’s Karen? Who wants to go back up to look for her?’ The only word then was a bomb had gone off at Grand Central and the station was now on fire. Later I’d find out details from closer to the scene from my friend Angela, who was at Lexington and 42nd when the pipe exploded. She said people were abandoning their cars they were so terrified.

But you couldn’t see a fire, or much smoke, we just heard a distant rumble and the faint smell of debris. So was something on fire? It didn’t sound that way. So me and a colleague Ken went down to check it out while some others hit the bar to check the TV for news and get a belt. I started taking snapshots of concerned looking people.

The roar got louder. At 42nd we could see more smoke floating up over the Bowery Savings building from the direction of Lexington. Police had closed off 42nd and there were firefighters and volunteer EMTs standing around. We went a block further down against the tide of traffic and, as the noise became louder still, I saw what was making it–a giant, raging hole in the ground spewing nasty greyish-brown stuff. I figured it wasn’t smoke–it was too light a color. I checked the heat of the manhole cover I was standing on and, feeling it was cool, figured the pressure hadn’t spread to the sewer system, so we were probably OK to stand and look a while. I took some video of the beast and chatted with a guy who was covered in spattered mud–he’d apparently been very close nearby in a bus when the pipe ruptured.

I called my mom first thing, just to let her know everything was OK, figuring if something terrible had happened she’d hear and be worried and the phone lines would be more and more clogged. So then, with a few images and videos, I thought I’d upload them immediately to show her what happened. So I went back to the office and threw the photos on Flickr and sent the video to YouTube. Then to editors at Gothamist and the New York Post to see if the latter wanted to use a few snaps in the early edition.

The Post wound up passing, but Gothamist posted the link to photos and embedded the video, initiating what has become an interesting study into the nature of media. From there, the video went to the top link at the Drudge Report, and ABC, CNN and the AP all got in touch looking to buttress their ‘citizen journalism’ initiatives and run footage sent in by an ordinary Joe–even though I guess I technically don’t count as one in this case. In addition to the offline outlets, the vid got links online from the Daily News, Wired, AOL Video and the New York Times. It’s now Saturday, and after racing up the YouTube charts on Thursday and Friday things seem to have settled down, though I’m still a bit amused and a bit appalled over the sheer volume of idiocy in the comments. I tried to mod out the white power spam, Harry Potter spoilers and other bits of random nonsense, but I left the conspiracy theorists, political fanatics and general menagerie of idiots who felt inclined to express all manner of numbskull opinion about a broken pipe.

At any rate, I guess that’s all this came down to. A broken pipe. It was scary because the day before the government decreed we were going to be attacked and the pipe happened to break near a major target near rush hour, an event made frightening 5 percent due to the initial accident and 95 percent by what almost seems like a conditioned reaction. At least that’s what I tried to convey when CNN interviewed me for the Situation Room and Anderson Cooper and I had to watch cable news for the first time in months to describe to them what was happening in the video.

Clearly, though, this stuff sells newspapers, and keeps people glued to the TV. One of the more cynical comments on the YouTube thread, one that’s stuck with me, is something to the effect of ‘the media wanted it to be a terrorist attack so they’d have a better story.’ As much as I don’t think that’s true, I think ‘they,’ the media in general, the bigwigs, whoever programs the programmers, have their fingers poised over the ‘EXTRA: Terrorism’ edition of the paper and might have seen this as a good dry run. The negative side of the neighborly feeling and coming together these events (9/11, Katrina, the blackout, etc) manifest in people is the want to know, the drive for information, most of which is slow to come and filled with empty bloviating on the news.

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