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Reuters AlertNet 7/14/07 6/29/07 6/14/7 6/1/7

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From the UN, the World's Most Famous Steam Pipe Incident Raises Underlying Questions

 Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, July 19 -- As far East as First Avenue, in front of the UN, the sidewalks were full of people, pointing their cell phone cameras down 42nd Street at the smoke. Rumors circulated. A building had collapsed. Grand Central had been attacked. And, of course, terrorism.

            Inside the UN, the loudspeaker system carried a security announcement, "Avoid 42nd Street, there has been an incident." It was reminiscent of the crash of the small plane, with the Yankees pitcher aboard, on the Upper East Side. World news because it happens in Manhattan. Some international correspondents ran into the street, flashing police press passes to get ever closer. Finally a police woman on 3rd Avenue said, "Get the hell back!"

    Because it was a steam pipe, it led the turned-back UN correspondents to muse about what lies beneath... the UN. It has been confirmed to Inner City Press by a well-placed (that is, low down) source that beyond the publicly-reported three sub-basements, there are two more floors underground. There are pipes, there are leaking boilers, and yes there is asbestos. If a similar incident occurred on the UN's campus, which is international territory, how would the City's access be? The City for now denies those who work at the UN access to records about their own safety. And the UN, of course, is not talking...

            Wednesday at dusk, traffic was turned away at 35th Street, Second Avenue was jammed. Later, after dusk, Mike Bloomberg and entourage showed up to hold a press conference amid the sirens. Each of his commissioners addressed him as, "Yes, Mayor," "thanks, Mayor," not a Mister Mayor was said. Clearly an internal order. Would this be his Giuliani moment?

            The commission for busses and subways referred to Woodlawn Road in The Bronx. Con Ed's man contradicted the Mayor's 24 inch pipe with a twenty. There was questions about asbestos. "Take precautions," people were told. But what precautions?

  The City later bragged that "three NYPD helicopters monitored the incident, including one with FD personnel on board providing live TV feeds to operations on the ground."

            On cable television's NY1, a hype poll was held. Would you stay in New York if there were another terrorist incident? Yes -- but not if steam pipes keep breaking. Although a woman died, of a heart attack, some calling in to NY1 joked. "I was so scared," a woman began," that I had to scream... let's go Mets!"

   By 1:30 a.m., still access to Grand Central was blocked except from the north, from 45th Street through the Met Life building. To its credit, Metro-North railroad was running, after having been subject to delays all morning due to rain. (A flier left on train seats said that three of the four tracks running through Fordham Station in The Bronx had been flooded. What will be done for the future is not clear.)

UN's campus, three blocks from the steam pipe: what lies beneath?

   At three in the morning, Team Bloomberg announced that

"sidewalk sheds must be installed before the sidewalks are reopened to the public. The addresses of the buildings are 360 Lexington Avenue, 369 Lexington Avenue, 370 Lexington Avenue, and 380 Lexington Avenue. Buildings forensic engineers have determined water collected in the basements of two nearby buildings will need to be removed. The addresses of these buildings are 369 Lexington Avenue and 375 Lexington Avenue."

   Oh, plywood. The e-mail press release, repeated at 6:30 a.m., instructed the media to "emphasize to their viewers, listeners, or readers that people who work between 40th and 43rd Streets and between Vanderbilt Avenue to Third Avenue zone will not be permitted to enter the area on Thursday morning."

   Consider it done. Turning full circle to the UN, staffers along First Avenue wondered if their colleagues in the Chrysler Building, UNFPA and UNOPS and others, would get or take the day off. One mused that today's logistics is the kind in UNOPS' mandate, an opportunity missed, again.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540