NEW YORK – A steam explosion tore through a Manhattan street Wednesday night about a block from crowded Grand Central Terminal at the height of the evening rush hour, killing one person and sending residents running for cover amid a plume of steam and ash.
Bellevue Hospital spokesman Stephen Bohlen confirmed the death occured at the institution where 14 people were also being treated for injuries.
Two people with criticial injuries are being treated at New York Weill-Cornell Medical Center while a third is being evaluated for lesser injuries,said hospital spokeswoman Emily Berlanstein.
An eyewitness told WNBC that one of the injured appeared to have suffered severe burns.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the one fatality was due to a cardiac arrest.
New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said it was not terrorism related. Subway service was suspended because of the explosion.
"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.
He blamed the incident on a 24-inch steampipe installed in 1924 that probably burst due to contact with cold water from a either a broken main or rainfall.
Hundreds of firefighters and police flooded the area, and Con Edison crews were on the scene.
Aerial video of the scene provided by FOX5 clearly showed a huge gaping hole in the middle of 41st Street, with a 20-foot tall geyser spewing brown mud on the cars and buses quickly abandoned by drivers.
Grand Central Terminal was evacuated at the time of the explosion, but a spokesperson told WNBC-TV that Metro North trains continued to run on time. Commuters were being allowed back into the station, but only at the 47th and Madison Avenue entrance. All other entrances were blocked as police tried to manage the crowds that gathered at the scene.
A titanic geyser of what appeared to be steam and mud continued to erupt from the center of 41st Street after the blast, generating a tremendous sustained roar.
"The big fear is there may or may not have been asbestos released," said Bloomberg. If so, he said it was likely that the cold water and steam may have washed it down underground.
Heiko H. Thieme, an investment banker in midtown, had mud splattered on his face, pants and shoes. He said the explosion was like a volcano.
"Everybody was a bit confused, everybody obviously thought of 9-11."
Darryl Green, who works with AT&T, said he could feel the buildings shake, so he and his colleagues dashed down 30 flights of stairs.
"As we came out onto the street, the whole street was dark with smoke," he said.
A small school bus was abandoned just feet from the spot where the steam jet spewed from the ground.
Millions of pounds of steam are pumped beneath New York City streets every hour, heating and cooling thousands of buildings, including the Empire State Building.
The steam pipes are sometimes prone to rupture, however. In 1989, a gigantic steam explosion ripped through a street, killing three people and sending mud and debris several stories into the air.
That explosion was caused by a condition known as "water hammer," the result of condensation of water inside a steam pipe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.