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Thursday, July 19, 2007
ON THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK-THE BIG BOOM AND ONE DAY LATER
I don't think I need to tell you that since 9/11 New Yorkers have become a lot more wary when it comes to the sudden and unexpected, no longer secure in the knowledge that NYC is the toughest city in the world. We may not have bowed to the spectre of terrorism, but the all-too-human fact of the matter is that we can still be spooked out of our wits.
At about 5:54 PM yesterday, I was chatting with a co-worker about aspects of the upcoming Batman flick that annoyed me, most notably the Joker looking like a poorly-made-up mime who'd been going down on a woman on a very "heavy" day, if you know what I mean. Or, as the British have dubbed it, "the clown's lipstick."
As this conversation got even more ludicrous, we both heard a sudden loud roar, and then the building began to rumble. We stared at each other, dumbstruck, and I exclaimed, "What the fuck was that?" as we made a beeline to the nearest picture window, following the noise. To our horror, we looked out and to the left where we saw people running in a state of blind panic as a colossal column of smoke dogged their heels. With that we and the staff's appointed fire marshalls began to round up the crew and make for the exits, sticking to the stairs and avoiding the elevators in case of a power outage.
For brief moment I felt like a character in a Godzilla movie, stuck in a skyscraper as the radioactive leviathan surfaced from the bowels of the earth, here now to commence one of his trademark senseless rampages of destruction.
Descending from the fourteenth floor was no picnic since every other floor had an exit that opened into the emergency stairwell, so the process of descent was slow and nerve-wracking. The roar was still loudly audible and the building still shook, and the inevitable thought of a terrorist attack entered the minds of all present. I admit to thinking exactly that, and once that inkling hit me I just went into auto-pilot mode, focused my thoughts into the back of my consciousness and concentrated on slowing my breathing and heart rate, a mellowing excercise learned during my long ago martial arts training. The two things that registered to me at all were the floor numbers as we past onto a new level and my heart beating like a rabbit's as it was chased by sadistic teens on dirt-bikes.
I've been in a few for-real fights, both winning and losing, and maintained an even heart rate during them thanks to being alive in the "now" of combat, but when trapped in a close space with about two hundred other fearful souls, images of the Twin Towers collapsing on people as they attempted to flee playing across the IMAX of the mind and comprehending the distinct possibility of being buried alive between untold tons of concrete and steel, composure is a luxury and not neccessarily an applicable skill. I'm no Master Po, but I somehow managed to slow the old ticker through zoning out, feeling the current in my veins and the pounding thump subside to a level of smoothness.
While I was doing my Zen monk thing, several of those leaving began to panic, hyperventilate, and scream at those in front to move faster. That obviously didn't help, and to make matters worse the idiots who are employed by the building to manage the main entrance decided to lock the front doors and leave. That development only served to send the already frightened members of the throng into fits of collapsing and wailing, so we decided to see if we could escape through the service basement.
We made our way below street level and found ourselves in a gray, bunker-like space, and just as we were about to exit some guy at the front brought the traffic to a halt, saying "No. We're safer in here. The street's on fire." We all stood stock still for a moment, at which point the building shook again, and the thought of imminent burial did not go over well with many of us. I looked at the guy, body-checked him out of the way and said, "Fuck this!" as I made my way free from my potential tomb.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, I looked to my right and saw the street littered with people staring, aiming digital cameras and camera phones, and pointing stiff-armed to my left. As I turned to see what they were pointing at, I beheld a yellow-brown cloud of thick smoke, and steam at least as wide as the street itself, showering mud and debris in a geyser that reached up by about twenty stories. Before I could gather my bearings and voluntarily choose a direction in which to flee, I was caught up in a stampede of terrified humanity and struggled to keep my balance and move with the frenzied traffic as the runners trampled my sandalled feet. At one point I looked to my left, and just avoided being run over by an SUV that flew from my blind spot. The driver slammed on the brakes and I threw myself backwards, avoiding impact by about four inches, and the guy had the decency to mouth at me through the window, "Are you okay?" I gave him the thumbs-up, and, visibly relieved, he continued on his way.
With the near collision providing a break in the stampede, I made my way to a safe enough vantage point and whipped out my camera.
This and the following shot are from a little over a block away.
People ran about the street, ignoring the police, searching for co-workers or friends, and looking for a good spot from which to take pictures. I was still more or less in the Zen state and, to be honest, a bit in numbed shock upon seeing all this confusion and destruction.
Like a zombie, I joined the shambling masses and made my way south along 3rd Avenue where I overheard snippets of cell phone conversations, many of which inevitably featured the words "terrorist attack" and "just like 9/11 all over again" (trust me, it wasn't even in the same universe as that horror, both physically and conceptually), but most disturbingly I passed a cute, blonde twenty-something merrily laughing into her phone and observing, "Where's Will Smith when you need him?" How detached from reality was this dumb bitch? I mean, look at this shit!
(the previous two photos are from the New York Times)
I doubt she'd have been laughing and invoking a movie star if she'd been over where I was.
Soon enough, I was near the Chrysler Building and snapped a shot of the cloud for scale.
Slowly coming out of my daze, I made my way to Jim Hanley's Universe on 33rd Street, my favorite comic book shop in the five boroughs thanks to its selection and wonderful staff, and asked if I could use their phone to leave a pre-emptive message on my answering machine to field calls and let people know that I was unharmed by the explosion and would be back at home most realistically in a couple of hours due to probable train delays; I take the yellow line N or R trains on the West side of Manhattan, and the explosion happened on 41st and Lexington, a mere stone's throw from Grand Central Station, and managed to fuck up the green 4, 5, and 6 trains, as well as the 7 train to Queens. Upon hearing that bit of news I also found out that the whole mess was caused by the explosion of an ancient steam pipe which may have been prompted by rain water from the two torrents of the previous twenty-eight hours, so I relaxed once I knew for certain that it was not a premeditated strike.
The crew at Hanley's, kind and obliging as always, allowed me to use the phone and take care of business, plus I made a bathroom pitstop before hitting the trains in anticipation of a long trip back to Brooklyn. And the trip was indeed long, delays stretching what would normally be about a half hour journey to an hour and a half.
Fortified with a small stack of the week's new comics — to say nothing of the spectacular THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD — I thumbed through the reading material, the colorful images dragging me out of my shocked state and back to the here and now. Upon reaching my neighborhood I picked up my laundry and purchased groceries, readying myself for the twin possibilities of the next day's work being cancelled or going in to work early and having to walk crosstown from the West thanks to the Times Square/Grand Central shuttle being out of commission. (I'm typing this at work, so you know how that turned out.) I then settled in front of the TV and surfed the live news coverage for any new info. By the time I went to bed the officially tally was between twelve and twenty people hospitalized (depending on which report you saw), one of whom was a poor bastard who sustained steam burns over 70% of his body, and one person dead of a stress-related heart atack.
Then came this morning and the predicted transit issues, so I left for work just before 7:30 and took about an hour to get here, including the crosstown trek.
Stepping out onto Times Square I was unsurprised to see it totally unaffected by the previous day's disaster, it's riot of illuminated colors and herds of skyward-gazing tourists oblivious of the "frozen zone" just a few avenues east.
The Empire State Building stood as usual, overseeing all for miles around and observing mute silence while a part of its domain was attended to by an assortment of emergency professionals.
The Chrysler Building was once more unshrouded by a geyser of 1000-degree water and underground filth, a sight that greatly reassured me.
As I approached Grand Central I hit the frozen zone, a cordon that stretched around the station and beyond for two avenues and four blocks in all directions, cutting off traffic and thereby rendering the always busy streets empty of all vehicles save for police cars and repair trucks.
I then detoured down 41st Street for as far as I was allowed to go, observing details on buildings that I never noticed since it wasn't my usual route. For instance, how can you not love a Davy Crockett gargoyle?
And you could tell something was amiss when you could stroll across Park Avenue South and not get hit by a car thanks to there not being any until just below 38th Street.
I swear I'm not good enough with Photoshop to have removed all those taxis, buses, and other assorted weapons of vehicular homicide.
Honest, this is really Park Avenue South!!!
It soon became obvious where the "action" was when I passed news vans from most of the city's TV stations hanging around waiting for any up-to-the-moment developments.
Finally arriving at my workplace on 3rd Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, just around the corner from the explosion, I looked up 41st to try and get a glimpse of the huge crater swallowing a red tow truck that made the front page of today's Daily News and turned up on its website:
But, good camera though it is, my Elph just didn't have enough zoom, so all I got was this:
You can barely make out the top of the vehicle, however in these next two shots you can see where windows were shattered by the blast, some ten stories up.
As I moved back toward my work building I spotted this array that turned out to be used for measuring the level of toxins in the atmosphere. The two microphone-stand-looking things are intakes, and the little generator widget is apparently a collection space for any samples sucked out of the air.
I should have seen it coming, but when I went into the building there were two other staffers standing in the lobby, both of whom told me that there was no one around to let us into the studio. I'd attempted to call in before leaving Brooklyn, hoping someone had phoned in and changed the outgoing message to inform staffers whether the place was closed or not, but no such luck, so I hauled my ass in. The three of us hung about for a half hour, by which time it was 9AM and no one else had showen, so we were ready to fuck off for home when the MIS guy arrived and let us in. Shortly thereafter, as many staffers as could make it in without their transportation routes being shut down began to roll in, and some of us decided to take advantage of the floor's wraparound balcony and check out the damage from a bird's eye view.
We peered over the railing and beheld the sunken truck for ourselves.
After that things pretty much went back to routine, and over the past few hours much of the train service has been restored.