Mary Altaffer  /  AP
A New York city police officer wears a mask Thursday as he walks past the scene of the steam pipe explosion on Wednesday.
updated 7/20/2007 4:06:16 PM ET 2007-07-20T20:06:16

New Yorkers are still questioning their air's safety after a steam pipe eruption spewed dirt and debris into the sky over midtown. Many remember the cover-up after the last major pipe rupture and the illnesses ground zero workers faced years after officials assured them lower Manhattan was safe.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday declared the air free of asbestos, saying "every single test" showed no asbestos in the air. Other city officials were unwavering in that assessment, as well.

Yet, the painful legacy of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was evident among area residents and workers.

The debris from Wednesday's rupture near Grand Central Terminal was nothing close to the scale of the twin towers' collapse, but the sight of police in filtration masks and the warnings to area residents to keep windows closed and to throw out any clothing touched by dust or debris added to people's fears.

"I take everything with a grain of salt. I would like to believe it, but I can't," said Ariana Reines, an English teacher who returned to her school on a block of Lexington Avenue that was closed off after Wednesday evening's rupture.

Many of the city's older steam pipes are lined with asbestos, a carcinogen that can cause serious illnesses with long-term exposure. The dust and debris churned up when the 83-year-old pipe burst showed some signs of asbestos on the ground; officials said 14 of 56 debris samples tested positive, though most had only trace amounts.

1989 experience
A deadly 1989 rupture of another steam pipe near Manhattan's Gramercy Park also spewed asbestos — a fact utility Con Ed later admitted it had concealed for days while residents were exposed.

Cleanup from Wednesday's blast, meanwhile, could last well into next week, Bloomberg said Friday.

"There are a couple blocks where people really are getting hurt, small businesses, offices," Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show. "But you know, you got to be safe no matter what the costs are."

Tests for airborne asbestos continued Friday, but Department of Environmental Protection officials have said any exposures to the cancer-causing contaminant would have been brief and the health risks limited.

Jason Post, a mayoral spokesman, said new test results would be available later Friday.

The cause of the rush-hour explosion remained under investigation, with speculation that the pipe might have burst under extreme pressure caused by an infiltration of cold rainwater or might have been damaged by a water main break.

Traffic jams continue
Bumper-to-bumper traffic jams continued to clog blocks around the "frozen zone," the three-square-block area around the explosion crater that was closed to vehicles and most pedestrians. Some police officers were still wearing respiration masks, two days after the steam pipe blew apart.

"I don't know anybody here who's going out to lunch," said attorney Jordan Fox, who was working a block from the rupture site. "It's musty out there — it's humid, and the air is kind of thick. That could keep the asbestos entrained in the air."

"They lied to us on Sept. 11 and thereafter. It's clear they misrepresented exposure after 9/11," Fox said. "A lot of people would ask, 'Why should we trust them now?'"

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