In New York, An Explosion Forces Stifled Fears Back To the Surface

A crowd in midtown Manhattan Wednesday looks in the direction of a pipe explosion that sent steam and mud dozens of stories high, killing one and injuring 27. Many feared it was another 9/11.
A crowd in midtown Manhattan Wednesday looks in the direction of a pipe explosion that sent steam and mud dozens of stories high, killing one and injuring 27. Many feared it was another 9/11. (By Astrid Stawiarz -- Getty Images)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

NEW YORK, July 19 -- On most days in this city, the line that separates the Whens from the Ifs -- those who think another act of terrorism here is a certitude, and those who do not -- is pretty hard to spot. After nearly six incident-free years, New Yorkers tend to choose a side on the fear divide and then shut up about it.

Until, say, a geyser of steam and mud erupts from an underground pipe, shooting dozens of stories into the sky a block from Grand Central Station during afternoon rush hour, injuring 27 and causing a fatal heart attack. That changes things.

There isn't a director in Hollywood who could have made Wednesday's "infrastructure accident" look or sound more like the handiwork of al-Qaeda, right down to the thick coating of soot on the taxis that happened to drive by the scene. Right down to the high-heeled shoes that were left littering Park Avenue, by women who figured they could run faster in bare feet.

In the hour of panic and its aftermath, the Whens and the Ifs were suddenly talking about what had led them to their tribe of choice. Everyone here has fine-tuned an attitude, a margin of error, an account of the odds. For the most hopeful, that can be as hard-nosed as citing the microscopic chances of actually being killed or injured by a terrorist, with perhaps a reference to how the Israelis have it way way worse and how Americans who fret too much are just a bunch of wussies.

Then there's Michael Joseph, a beaming, baby-faced man in his 20s, who was standing Thursday with some friends a block from the scene of the accident. He'd recently been ribbing one of his more zealously cautious colleagues, but by Wednesday evening he was done with that particular vein of comedy.

"You know, it's weird -- but just yesterday, I heard about this guy at work who has a gas mask and a fire blanket and bottles of water under his desk," said Joseph. "And I've got a big mouth, so I told everybody, and we were just making fun of him. I mean, we thought it was hysterical."

In the midtown Manhattan blocks near the crater Thursday, there were plenty of stunned, you-had-to-be-there tales of fear and sprinting, but it was hard to find people truly rethinking their approach to anticipating the very worst. Generally, New Yorkers saw something in the explosion that affirmed their attitudes. In the years since the attacks of 9/11, Gotham has regained much of its confidence, and many who heard and saw the "Blast of Fear," as Newsday called it, weren't flinching.

"In New York, a 'contingency plan' is choosing a different restaurant," said Malcolm Pollack, who was heading to lunch Thursday with some colleagues and trying to figure out where to eat, given that his favorite spot was closed by the damage. On Wednesday, Pollack heard the blast and thought it sounded like Zeus had declared war on the planet. On the street he comforted a woman who was crying and who kept sobbing "I hate it, I hate it."

"You hate what?" Pollack asked.

"I hate . . . Muslims," she finally burst out.

"You mean, you hate yourself for hating Muslims," he said.

"That's right," she said.

Pollack recalled that jump to a wrong conclusion and shrugged in a way that said, What a city. So, is he changing his habits? Nah. "In New York, if you're not killed, you just keep moving. Life goes on, unless it doesn't."

But anxiety was as easy to find yesterday as swagger. There have been deadlier underground explosions here in the past -- one in 1989 killed three people -- but New York now is a town of subtexts, and the subtext on Wednesday seemed spelled out in letters so big they would barely fit on a billboard.

"I've got a whole disaster package that I keep in my car," said Victoria Becker, a legal secretary, who stood Thursday across the street from Grand Central. "Flashlight, batteries, toilet paper. Minestrone soup." She also has a plan with her four children -- in case of tragedy, meet at a certain place on a certain bridge, and if the bridge is closed meet at this other location. "They all know where to go and how to get there."

That's more preparation than Sarah Rivera is willing to handle, but Thursday she and her sister, who works a few blocks away, decided it was time to name a just-in-case meeting spot. Up until now, her only concession to emergency preparation was on her feet.

"I have a pair of sneakers with me every day," she said, pointing to brown and black Keds. "I was in Long Island City [in Queens] on 9/11 and I remember all those women coming across the bridge, and I told myself then, always bring a pair of comfortable shoes."

A lot of people here are Whens who are trying their very best to comport themselves as Ifs. The trouble is, when disaster happens, the distinction may seem irrelevant.

"As an intellectual matter, I know it's effectively a matter of when," said Jeremy Wallison, an attorney who said the explosion sounded like thunder that wouldn't stop. "But when something like this happens, it's still as shocking as if you were approaching it as a matter of if. A lot of the fatalism of 9/11 has faded in New York, but for a while [Wednesday] everyone thought that some terrorists had blown up a building in midtown, in broad daylight. And that suggests that the choice between when and if doesn't really matter."

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