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Tom Bisky

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When Manholes Explode, New Yorkers Shrug

Posted: 07/29/10 02:40 PM ET

For months, national attention has focused on a pipe disaster 5,000 feet underwater. So what gives with New Yorkers, who are downright blasé about pipe disasters on the streets where they live, work and play?

Consider the current spate of so-called "manhole explosions." As audio-visual phenomena, these volcanic blasts from manhole-accessed underground pipes are nothing short of spectacular -- but we New Yorkers are getting used to them. In recent months, manhole explosions have occurred, in one borough or another, with metronomic precision -- March 3, April 6, May 3 and June 5.

Note to terrorism theorists: At ease. A Gotham-variety manhole explosion is a random, unintended event. It's caused by the slow-but-sure erosion of a few inches of protective covering on 94,000 miles of electric cables under the streets. But a manhole explosion can be as scary -- and, on rare occasions, as hazardous to life, limb and property -- as an "improvised explosive device" (IED).

Picture this: At some New York City intersection, without warning, a 20-foot geyser of flame erupts from a manhole as a cannon-like blast launches the manhole's 300-pound, cast-iron round cover 30 to 50 feet into the air -- with nowhere for it to go but back down.

On my daily walks in Brooklyn and Manhattan I imagine that, in the manner of a fatal bullet speeding my way, I'll never hear the incoming manhole cover that has my name on it. But then I realize that this ill-suited flying saucer would have just one name "on it," no matter what. Guess whose?

If you guessed Wham-O, sorry -- but granted, onomatopoetic license does invite a shout-out to the toymaker: "It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a 300-pound Frisbee!"

No, if you were to examine a Surface-to-Air manhole cover after smashdown -- the grittier, urban equivalent of splashdown -- you'd find on it, in some font old or new, a corporate familial variant of the name "Con Edison."

During a nine-year gig as the iconic energy company's head writer, I had a License to Schmooze on the record with TV, radio and print reporters. On many occasions, I told them the Rube Goldberg-esque backstory of manhole explosions. After reading John McPhee -- the dean of literary non-fiction's "how-stuff-works" school -- I finally got the account down to five sentences:

  1. In the winter, municipal trucks scatter salt on the streets to melt the ice and snow.
  2. Some of the runoff seeps underground as a salty, corrosive, cold soup that begins to eat away the insulation on Con Ed's electric cables, which run through lengths of manhole-accessed pipe.
  3. When enough insulation is gone from two adjoining cables, electricity jumps (or "arcs") between them, touching off a fire that quickly consumes nearby flammables.
  4. The combustion gases build up enormous pressure, seeking a weak point from which to escape the pipe's tight confines.
  5. That Achilles' heel turns out to be the closest manhole.

As noted, said manhole's cover is brutally heavy -- weighing as much as your average East Village couple -- but the explosion can toss it five stories skyward.

To be fair, no other megalopolis on the planet is as challenging to providers of essential services -- from removing snow to supplying reliable electricity -- as New York City. In fact, manhole explosions have bedeviled electrical engineers here since the days of Thomas Edison, as the legendary inventor's notebooks reveal:

When we first put the Pearl Street [power] station in operation [on September 4, 1882], we had cast-iron junction-boxes at the intersections of all the streets. One night, at about two o'clock in the morning, a policeman came in and said that something had exploded at the corner of William and Nassau streets. I happened to be in the station, and went out to see what it was. I found that the cover of the manhole, weighing about 200 pounds, had entirely disappeared . . . We could never find that cover . . . However, I got around the difficulty by putting a little bottle of chloroform in each box, corked up, with a slight hole in the cork. The chloroform being volatile and very heavy, settled in the box and displaced all the air. I have never heard of an explosion in a manhole where this chloroform had been used.


[From Edison, His Life and Inventions,
 by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin; published in New York by Harper Brothers, 1929].

When, you may wonder, did Edison's bottle-of-chloroform trick become obsolete? The answer, alas, is above my pay grade as a roving amateur historian of urban infrastructure. All I know is that today, New Yorkers pay scant attention to manhole explosions -- and we've learned to take the outcomes in stride.

Item: After an explosion at 94th and Columbus destroyed her parked car, the owner reacted to the news with a shrug, a smile and a Zen-like tranquility common among Upper West Siders: "Well, everything's impermanent."

The takeaway? We appear to be creating a Gotham-specific layer of new meaning for the acronym IED: Ignorable Everyday Disaster.