Panic after blast in N.Y.

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NEW YORK (AP) – Thousands of people filled the streets, running, screaming, crying. A giant cloud rose into the air, as high as the Manhattan skycrapers.

The sirens wouldn’t stop blaring.

Everyone thought the same thing: terrorism.

“Like most New Yorkers these days, we assumed the worst. We thought terrorism.,” said advertising executive Saul Gitlin, 44, who watched the mayhem along with terrified co-workers from their 23rd-floor window.

In the end, the blast had nothing to do with terrorism, but rather a ruptured steam pipe that left an enormous gash in the middle of the street.

“There is no reason to believe whatsoever that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference at the scene of the blast.

Sixteen people were taken to Bellevue Hospital, including one who died, said spokesman Stephen Bohlen. He said two seriously injured patients were being treated in the hospital’s trauma unit. The remainder suffered minor injuries, he said.

Two people were in critical condition at New York Weill-Cornell Medical Center, said spokeswoman Emily Berlanstein.

The explosion left behind a large amount of wreckage.

A city bus was abandoned in the middle of Lexington Avenue, covered with grit. A woman who was bleeding profusely was being helped by police while a man lay on a stretcher in the street.

Soot kept falling from the sky, covering some pedestrians. Others looked wet. The sky was blackened. And people wandered aimlessly, not knowing where to go.

On the 23rd floor of his office building on Madison Avenue, Gitlin heard a massive “boom,” followed by what he said sounded like explosions. He and co-workers rushed to the window and saw crowds of frantic people below, filling the street from sidewalk to sidewalk and running. “We didn’t know why,” Gitlin said.

He put his hands on the window. It was vibrating.

Before he and the others took the elevator down to the street, he pulled out his cell phone and called his wife in suburban White Plains.

“I told her I wanted her to know that I’m OK,” he said.

As thousands of people raced westward – away from the explosion at 41st Street and Lexington – the thought on many minds was: Was this another dreaded terror attack on New York?

“Nobody knew what was really going on. We felt tremors, and heard a bang,” said Kevin Swanepoel, 45, of Milford, Conn., who had been in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

On Wednesday, he was taking pictures of the explosion aftermath using his new iPhone.

Cesar Vallejo, a Grand Central restaurant manager, was forced out of the terminal by the explosion. “The streets were completely packed. Everyone was pulling out cell phones and trying to take pictures.”

When the smoke subsided hours later, simple facts allayed human fears: A steam pipe that is more than 80 years old had ruptured, sending steam up as high as the shining modern Manhattan skyscrapers.

Some of the buildings, no doubt, could be possible targets of terrorism.

A block away on Third Avenue is the highrise that houses some Homeland Security offices. Nearby is the Citicorp building, an international financial center where security has been heightened for years. The American Zionist Federation also has an office in the area.

By Wedesday evening – in a world now constantly in the grip of possible terror – the explosion resulted in local problems ranging from plans for a big cleanup to Wednesday evening’s delayed commute home.

Grand Central was roped off with police tape, some subway stations were closed and police officers with bullhorns were directing commuters to alternate entrances to Metro-North.

In the basement of Grand Central by early evening, Vallejo was back at Brother Jimmy’s to Go restaurant, which he manages in the underground food concourse.

It was quieter than the normal rush hour in the bustling New York transportation hub. The stores were all closed, he said.

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