NEW YORK (AP) – The day after an underground steam pipe exploded in midtown Manhattan, spewing debris hundreds of feet, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to assure worried residents and workers that the air was safe to breathe.
“The steam, humidity and rainfall probably helped the situation because it prevented asbestos particles from becoming airborne,” Bloomberg said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “But let me repeat, every single test we did of the air showed there is no asbestos in the air.”
The blast during Wednesday evening’s rush hour gouged a yawning crater at a busy intersection near Grand Central Terminal, injuring at least 40 people, snarling traffic and sending geysers of steam and dirt into the air. A New Jersey woman died of a heart attack as she fled.
The air quality tests were continuing, but Department of Environmental Protection officials said any exposures to asbestos would have been brief and the health risks limited.
The cause of the rupture remained under investigation. Officials said the pipe, installed in 1924, might have exploded under extreme pressure caused by an infiltration of cold rainwater or might have been damaged by a water main break.
The crater left by the explosion was just visible Thursday behind the yellow police tape that blocked off a frozen zone of several square blocks surrounding the site, which is near the Chrysler Building.
A red truck at the bottom of the hole was still there Thursday. Two city buses and a small school bus that had been abandoned in the middle of Lexington Avenue had not been moved.
Bloomberg said crews were working to shrink the frozen zone and had reopened many of the outer streets but planned to re-close Third Avenue, which runs parallel to Lexington a block away, on Thursday night so they could clean debris from building facades. He estimated much of the work would be completed by Monday.
The local electric utility, Consolidated Edison, was working to repair the crater, but officials expected it would take through next week for that area to reopen.
In an echo of Sept. 11, when the federal government rushed to reassure people that the air around ground zero was safe to breathe, the steam pipe blast raised concerns about airborne asbestos contamination.
Thousands of people who worked and lived near the World Trade Center site have become ill with various respiratory diseases and cancer that they attribute to their exposure to toxic, debris-laden dust. A lawsuit has been filed claiming the city was negligent for not requiring cleanup workers to wear respirators.
Some of the pipes carrying steam through the city are wrapped in the chemical commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. Its tiny fibers can cause cancer and other serious diseases when inhaled over many years.
The Department of Environmental Protection took 12 air sample tests, and all came back negative, Bloomberg said.
There also were 71 pieces of debris sampled, and of those, results from 56 were available. Bloomberg said 14 tested positive for asbestos, but most had only trace amounts.
Still, officials were asking residents to be cautious and to turn in their dust-covered clothes to emergency crews.
“We want to make sure absolutely that nobody who is in the area is exposed to asbestos,” Bloomberg said. “It is important to remember that health experts have found that it is very unlikely that brief exposure to asbestos, even at very high levels of asbestos, causes any long-term consequences.”
Residents who were already in the area were allowed to stay, but the city told them to keep windows closed and air conditioners set to recirculate indoor air instead of drawing it from outside.
Dozens of police officers wearing gas masks with filters patrolled the area Thursday, but few others, including utility workers installing temporary gas lines, wore masks at all.
Business owners and residents who could convince the police that they needed to enter the restricted area around the blast site were allowed in briefly Thursday. They were being asked to have their establishments inspected and, if necessary, cleaned before returning permanently.
Jennifer Lucin, who owns an Italian restaurant just south of the site with her husband, went in to get a check she had written out but not mailed to pay her sales tax, which was due Friday.
“I’m being a good citizen,” she said.
The woman died after the blast was identified as Lois Baumerich, 51, of Hawthorne, N.J. She worked in the legal department at Pfizer Inc., about a block from the company’s corporate headquarters and very close to the explosion site. Company spokesman Bryant Haskins said she was believed to be outside her office building when she began having chest pains after the explosion.
Forty-one other people were taken to area hospitals. Three remained hospitalized, with one in critical condition. The others were treated and released.
Con Edison head Kevin Burke said the utility would reimburse businesses for the cost of cleaning. He said crews were working around the clock but it would take time to repair the damage.
“We need to get more information from the hole in the street that was created,” he said.