So my husband and I lived in New York City (Manhattan’s Upper East side) for a few years right after college. With all of Manhattan’s frenetic modern energy and constantly rising new construction, it’s easy to forget that much of its infrastructure is aging. Like most New Yorkers, we relied on the subway system to get anywhere, and like most New Yorkers, we took it completely for granted until the occasional overnight deluge flooded the tunnels and stopped the trains, forcing us to walk to work. We mostly took it in stride. It was inconvenient, but we were young, fit people and Manhattan isn’t that big. I should take a moment to note that New Yorkers have survived far worse catastrophes than anything we saw. This was post-9/11 and pre-Hurricane Sandy. We were also not there for the extended blackout in 2003 (I was without power for two days in my hometown way upstate). My roommates were already living in the city for the blackout, though, and recounted stories of people being trapped in elevators and on trains between subway stations.
I was, however, in New York on July 18th, 2007, working in an office in the Graybar building near Grand Central Terminal, when suddenly there was a loud explosion, followed by a sustained roar that reverberated throughout the building. Before anyone had time to process the noise, the building’s emergency alarms blared and we all dashed for the exits. I will say of post-9/11 New York that building management was diligent in performing emergency evacuation and fire drills, during which everyone in the building files neatly and calmly down the stairs and out to a designated exit. I will also say that reality is nothing like the drills. The door opened into utter chaos. In the elevator lobby, a mob was already pushing toward the stairwell, but there was a bottleneck in the doorway as people at the front of the hoard tried to get down the stairs. I heard someone yell, “Keep f* moving, it’s happening again” and I felt my heart begin to pound. I took 3 very deliberate breaths–3 seconds in through my nose and 3 seconds out through my mouth–and squared my shoulders to claim my space as I wove my way into the mob. My pulse slowed and I found a mantra of sorts, repeating to myself, “Just keep moving.” I got into the stairwell and there were already hundreds of people from other floors on the landings above and below us trying to merge–pushing their way really–into the torrent of people already racing down the stairs. Also on the landings, and on several of the steps, were heels that women had kicked off to speed their descent. There were also purses and briefcases, phones that had been dropped and sunglasses. All manner of personal effects had been discarded for efficiency and now were trip hazards for the rest of us. “Just keep moving…just keep moving…”
I grabbed and leaned my weight against the handrail as I stepped over the hazards on the stairs. “Watch your feet, just keep moving…” At one point I saw a ripple in the mob ahead. Someone had stumbled and fallen into the people below them. There were shouts, there was swearing and the panic of being trapped in a 30 story building with only a slow path out. There was the din of hundreds of feet clattering down the stairs, and there was the constant deep rumbling outside.
People kept saying it was a bomb, that they had seen smoke from their windows and that debris was clattering against the glass. Finally we got to the bottom and I saw our designated office safety marshal. He was panicked and red-faced. There were two doors at the bottom of the landing and one was jammed with people. We exited out through the other door, which dumped us into Grand Central Terminal. Normally a bustling hub, we were alarmed to find it utterly deserted. It had already been evacuated and we were clearly in the wrong place. We ran to the main doors and looked out to see a dense fog completely enveloping the street. A cop emerged from one of the side wings and yelled at us to go out the back exits. We didn’t see another person until we were back outside.
The air outside was oddly humid and musty smelling. People emerged from around the sides of the building covered in mud and debris. They gestured wildly for everyone to keep heading uptown, and some tried to yell instructions, but their voices were drowned by the roar of what sounded like a raging waterfall. We followed the crowd several blocks uptown and finally I was able to hear to piece together that there had been some sort of eruption. I grabbed my phone and dialed my (then) boyfriend (now husband), but couldn’t get through. The network was jammed by all the other calls happening in midtown. I heard someone say that all subway service was suspended.
It was just before 6PM and the roughly 5 million people who commuted underground were going to have to find another way home. I was reminded of my roommate’s retelling of the blackout, during which many people from the outer Burroughs were stranded and temporarily homeless. There were cabs, of course, and buses, but there’s no way to handle the volume of commuters who rely on the subway every day. I walked the 40 blocks home in the heat and humidity, and considered myself fortunate that I had the option of going home. When I walked into my apartment, my roommate was already home and watching the news. He looked at me wide-eyed. He’d been trying to call me, but couldn’t get through. A steam pipe had exploded through a busy intersection, sending a scalding geyser of steam and mud and debris 40 stories in the air and leaving a 15′ deep crater in the middle of a busy intersection.
All in all, most New Yorkers considered this a near-miss disaster. 1 person died of a heart attack and 45 people were injured by flying debris or scalded by the steam. The city that lived through the nightmare of 9/11 was largely unfazed by the incident and people were quick to point out that it could have been far, far worse, and it’s true.
But it does underscore a need for basic preparedness, even in an urban environment that seems cutting edge/progressive, and where resources are generally plentiful and immediately available. The modern conveniences of daily life are much more fragile than they appear, especially if you are in a city where infrastructure is poorly maintained. Crowds can quickly turn to panicked mobs in an emergency.
The best advice I can give is to learn to de-escalate and become calm, deliberate and self-reliant in the face of trauma (think: what would a soldier or a triage doctor do?). Know what matters in the moment, understand how things are likely to fail, and plan accordingly. If you’re evacuating a building, then getting out and avoiding immediate danger should be the focus. Speculating about motive or the politics of who’s responsible is a distraction that you can’t afford until you reach relative safety. The cell network in an urban environment will overload in a disaster. Don’t rely on getting through. Finally, stay fit, dress appropriately for the weather and wear sensible shoes.