So This One Time I Was In An Explosion

My very first day in New York City a metal beam fell from thirty stories up and landed on the sidewalk right in front of me. When Cops ran over and roped off the area in a panic, I thought they were being a little dramatic. It didn’t occur to me, of course, until months later that I’d almost been killed by a piece of metal falling from the sky my first day in this city.

I’d always assumed getting murdered was what I should worry about when moving here. But, in the four years I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize it’s not the evil people that make this city so nuts. It’s how vulnerable eight million residents (and 20 million people in the immediate vicinity) are to the weather, the infrastructure, terrorist attacks, traffic patterns, and a simple little mistake of say, one individual who, oops!, accidently drops a metal beam from 30 floors up. I knew New York would be crazy when I moved here, but after years of working in outdoor adventure, living in the wild, and scaling thousand foot rocks walls, I figured I could handle just about anything.

So imagine my surprise when, three years ago, I found myself in the middle of a steam pipe explosion. Luckily, some inner voice had prompted me to move off the corner of Lexiginton and 42nd about five seconds before the pipe exploded, which saved me from getting pummeled by asphalt flying through the air. This is what the explosion looked like after things had calmed down a bit.

Most of us could only see clouds swallowing buildings and hundreds of New Yorkers sprinting around the corner away from some scary loud noise coming from Lexington Avenue. Some people screamed about another terrorist attack while others ran past me in an eery silence with a combined look of terror and concentration on their faces. The sound of men’s patten leather shoes clicking against the pavement and women’s panty-hosed thighs frictionioning against one another seemed louder than the continuos roar of epic proportions coming from whatever horrific things was occurring on the other side of the building. Maybe because I’ve watched too much tv or maybe because I still feel like I’m living in a movie when I walk around NYC, but the only explanation my mind could come up with as to what on earth was happening around the corner was that it must be either Godzilla or the State Puff Marshmellow Man from Ghostbusters walking down Lexington Avenue.

While I just stood there, frozen, thinking about Ghostbusters, the gal next to me (who’d just interviewed me for a job), grabbed my hand and dragged me down the street. Without thinking I left my bag on the curb. As soon as I realized this, I let go of her hand and tried running back for the bag. Something strange happened though – my legs wouldn’t let me run in the direction of the explosion. I remember staring at them, yelling in my head “GO you stupid legs! My whole life is in that bag!” A suit running by stopped to scold me as I debated with my legs. “What the hell are you doing? FUCKING RUN!” When my friend came back and grabbed my hand, I finally ran away from the explosion, but I was so pissed – how could my legs betray me so? I guess that’s what happens when you’re in fight or flight though – the body just doesn’t care about your ipod, camera, journal full of all of your brilliant ideas, or the amount of money it will cost to replace any of it.

This is what it looked like once a few thousand New Yorkers and I ran far enough away to stop and look back.

When we reached a safe distance an avenue away, I noticed that everyone looked like these guys in the picture above, including me. We were covered in what we were later told was asbestos. While everyone else watched the cloud of smoke swallow more building and asked the cops and each other if the building had been hit by a plane, I stared at the African American man on the ground beside me. I couldn’t figure out what would make most of his skin so pink like that. Then I realized most of his skin appeared to be burned off. Some of it dangled there like thinly sliced deli meat and the rest was rolled up in segments, like window shades. I wanted to help the man, especially being a Wilderness First Responder, but I couldn’t remember for the life of me how the hell you treat burn victims. How strange that during all those years as a white water raft guide and Outward Bound Wilderness Instructor, I’d been able to respond to crisis without even thinking. But now I was just that stupid bystander, in the way, doing nothing but watching him sit there as his body was probably about to go into shock, which can kill a person. A man in a suit finally ran over to him, called for help, and assisted him until a fireman came over. I remember thinking that if that man ended up dying because I did nothing, I’d never forgive myself.

Moments later a woman ran up to me and my boss friend. “They say it was a transformer that blew up.” I couldn’t believe it. Those things were real? ” No way!” I said, thinking that she meant the “Robots In Disguise” kind of transformers I used to play with as a kid, not the things that distribute power. After seeing my boss friend talk about transformers without the least amount of concern, I realized they probably weren’t talking about action figurines here.

After about an hour of watching smoke clouds and searching for answers, most of us realized we should probably just go home, so we slowly dispersed. Would you believe most people on Fifth Avenue didn’t even notice a few thousand people wandering aimlessly around, covered in brown crap? OR the giant cloud of smoke coming from only a couple avenues away? Taxis just kept driving all crazy, beggars kept jangling their cups of change, and shoppers kept plummeting deeper into debt. I was actually kind of pissed that we’d almost died and no one seemed to notice or care. Then again, that’s just what New York does – it keeps moving no matter what. It has no choice.

My boss lady called her boyfriend to tell him she was okay, then hugged me goodbye and left to go home to him. I wasn’t really sure what to do now. I couldn’t think of anyone in NYC who’d be wondering if I was hurt, so I called my family. They, being in The South, had no idea what on earth I was talking about, but were glad to hear I was safe. “Of course you‘d be in an explosion.” Over the years they’ve come to accept the fact that I’m often in life-threatening situations, either by choice or chance, and have developed pretty amazing coping skills for having such a reckless daughter who causes them to worry more than any parent ever should.

The next few hours are kind of a blur. I made it home after someone (still not sure who) gave me twenty bucks. Since I lost my keys in the explosion I had to ring the doorbell of the lady who lived in the basement apartment. When she opened the door and saw me, her shocked expression reminded me I was probably still covered in that werid brown stuff. How embarrassing! I’d just ridden the subway looking like that!

“What in God’s name happened to you?”

“I have no idea. Some crazy explosion I think,” I said laughing (because laughing is how I handle things I can’t actually handle)

“Oh no! The steam pipe explosion! You poor thing. We gotta get those clothes off you, bag ’em up, and get you in the shower, pronto!” Apparently the news had ordered survivors of the explosion to follow this check list of instructions because it’s not super safe to have asbestos on your skin and clothes and hair for hours.

My neighbor sent me straight to the shower, left a warm blanket by the door, and checked on me every once in awhile. I was so surprised that someone who hardly knew me would become my surrogate mother like that. When the scolding, hot shower water hit my face, I came out of my zombie-like state and fell into the tub, bawling like a little girl until my skin pruned. I guess your body makes sure you’re safe and sound before it lets you emotionally react to trauma.

The next day I went back to the explosion site to try to find my bag. The only people they’d let into the four block radius were Biohazard people wearing those crazy space suits and scary masks. Somehow I convinced a cop to let me threw the gate. I remember the streets being littered with high heels, bags, purses, half eaten pieces of pizza, and melted frapachinos, just like in a movie! I guess I wasn’t the only person who’d dropped everything to run. When I couldn’t find my bag, the people in masks told me everything left in “the hot zone” had already been shipped away and destroyed for asbestos poisoning. Funny – Con Ed (the people responsible for the explosion) destroyed everything near the explosion yet claimed that thousands of us who’d been covered in asbestos from head to toe needn’t worry.

The next few weeks I experienced PTSD, which meant crying every time it rained, I heard a loud noise, or ran on a treadmill. I also meant I became quite the little rager – throwing and breaking things often, including my phone. That Verizon theme song they play when you’re on hold is enough to make anyone feel compelled to destroy valuable gadgets though. Luckily, when I told he person on the phone why I’d lost my phone, she said exactly what I needed to hear.

“That must have been awful! You poor thing!”

Other than the lady in the basement, this was the first time I’d heard sympathy from anyone. Most New Yorkers didn’t want to hear about it, saying I should just get over it already. They were right on some level. “It’s not like it was 911 and thousands of people died.” Only one person died actually, and that was from a heart attack. Even the man with the dangling skin had survived. But even though this was nothing like 911, the fact remains that thousands of people ran for their lives and felt completely powerless, vulnerable, and terrified because they thought it was 911 all over again. I really feel bad for those who’d been in 911 and then had to momentarily relive those feelings all over again because of the steam pipe explosion.

A few good things came out of this experience though. I got to feed pizza to some hot firemen for starters. About a week after the explosion, I got a call from Fireman _____ , who’d gone against orders and secretly rescued my bag from being destroyed. When I asked him why, he said, “It didn’t make sense. Your whole life was in that bag. I just couldn’t throw it all away like that.” Until this call, I’d been crying about that bag for days, beating myself up for leaving it behind so carelessly. My Mom had even scolded me for leaving my bag behind too. “Why did you have it on the ground in the first place?!” Maybe it’s just easier people to focus on a stupid ipod than to face the fact that things we have no power over can kill us at any moment.

The next day I went to the firehouse to retrieve my bag. I bought some pizzas with me as a reward for my heros. As soon as I got there, though, the truck was pulling out of the station. I sat on the stoop and burst into tears. “Great, now the pizza’s gonna be cold and I’ll never get my bag back.” People walking by looked at me like I was a freak, blubberig like a baby outside a fire house with a tear-stained pizza box on my lap. After a couple hours, my heroes finally returned, only now they were sweaty and covered in charcoal.

Come to find out my hero had already left for the day. That’s okay though. I got to feed a crew of handsome men wearing little more than suspernders and tight fitting white undershirts. One of the cutest ones came up to me, looked me in the eye, grabbed a slice, and said “Oooooh. Thanks sweety. I’m fuck’n staaaah-vin.” I’m sure my cheeks turned fire engine red from all my blushing.

But that’s not the only good thing that came out of something that sucked so bad. I got the job I’d been interviewing for, which I loved and made great money at. I also developed a friendship with gal who’d interviewed me and held my hand. She too was tired of people comparing the explosion to 911 and was glad someone else was finding it difficult to “just get over it.” I’d come to realize on all those Outward Bound courses over the years that the unique bond between survivors of scary situations is more precious than most. Since this event, I’ve also come to see living NY as one big Outward Bound course – when I’m trapped on a subway for hours because some jerk pulled the emergency break or soaked to the core by an unexpected downpour, it sucks. But then I look around and realize that everyone is annoyed or everyone is drenched, that it really sucks for everyone, and it is in these very moments that I feel more connected to humanity than ever.

As a result of the steam pipe explosion, a strange thing shifted in the way I look at human beings too. For all my years as a raft guide, I’d judged all those tourist who’d fallen out of my boat during dangerous rapids and frozen stiff, like roadkill with rigamortis. I mean, how could you just float through rapids that could kill you and not even try to save yourself? But now I get it. The body is more powerful than the mind during traumatic events, and they, like me, could not make their muscles do what their minds and us raft guides had ordered them to do.

I got to thinking too of all those nights on Outward Bound courses when a kid would completely lose their mind upon hearing a noise that sounded to them like a bear outside their tent on an otherwise quiet night in the middle of the woods. It didn’t matter that it was just a squirrel and they weren’t actually gonna die. What’s important was that they thought a bear was about to go all Legends of The Fall on them, and that, like my fear of the State Puff Marshmellow Man, is very real, even if it’s not grounded in reality. So thanks to the explosion, I finally started to understand on a deeper level how powerless humans are sometimes. Not just over their surroundings but over themselves. Some of us fight, some of us flight, and some of us play dead. We have no control over which course we take when we find ourselves in the middle of trauma.

It’s funny how naive I was in thinking that moving to New York City would mean giving up the adhrehaline rushes, the ridiculously hard challenges, the surprises around every corner, and the constant threat of danger that was so normal in the outdoor adventure industry. I’ve come to think of living in NYC as probably the most epic adventure I’ve had yet. As long as it doesn’t involve getting murdered or actually dying from an explosion, falling objects, or another random, freakish accident, I’m loving it. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that a person can be both heroic and cowardly. Both the Outward Bound Instructor and the high-maintenance student, the raft guide and the poor bastard floating in the water, the firefighter or the damsel in distress who really does just wants a hot hero. Maybe that’s why I love this city so much – every day is an adventure. Maybe I don’t always have to be the heroine I always believed myself to be. I can just be a human being who has no control over the elements, just like everyone else.

(P.S. I didn’t take any of these pictures. They were all downloaded off the internet)

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Neil Otte says:


    CONVULSIONS came; and, where the field
    Long slept in pastoral green,
    A goblin-mountain was upheaved
    (Sure the scared sense was all deceived),
    Marl-glen and slag-ravine.

    The unreserve of Ill was there,
    The clinkers in her last retreat;
    But, ere the eye could take it in,
    Or mind could comprehension win,
    It sunk!–and at our feet.

    So, then, Solidity’s a crust–
    The core of fire below;
    All may go well for many a year,
    But who can think without a fear
    Of horrors that happen so?

    –Herman Melville, recounting the mine explosion at the Siege of Petersburg.

  2. Dan says:

    Terrific recount, Melanie.

    I was in Grand Central Terminal at the time- I remember there was a man in a suit who at first rumble, began shrieking into his BlackBerry “BOMB! BOMB! A BOMB JUST WENT OFF IN GRAND CENTRAL”, whipping all those around him into this terrible frenzy…

    Disaster polarizes us into our best and worst.

  3. Clayton says:

    Mel, thanks for sharing this story, and well, many others. You never know what event can be traumatic for someone.
    And thanks for the birthday wishes. I’m glad the memories with the mask live on. . . perhaps a traumatic event for some of the viewers!

  4. soce says:

    I was in and out of Grand Central at the time as well!! Ahh, the memories. We all thought it was a terrorist attack, and how weird it was to see smokey steam rising and the nonstop explosion sound all around us! And then when we made it to safety a few blocks away, it was like nothing had ever happened.

    I took a long bath and threw away the clothes I had been wearing that day. I was sad to see them go, but what else could you do. But before I did that, I met up with my best friend and gave him a big, long hug. Whoops!

  5. shaun says:

    I forget my old facebook password and my yahoo account expired so Ive looking for you – shaun – the london Brown Bear
    how you doing – I miss you – XXXXX

    1. melaniehamlett says:

      Shauny!!!!!! My long lost friend from Mitch-igan! I’ve been trying to find you for YEARS! Please do email me at asap. I wanna talk to you so bad!!!!!!

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