BPP On The Scene: The New York Steam Pipe Explosion

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A firefighter walks past the scene of a steam pipe explosion on Lexington Avenue Thursday in New York City. Steam and mud were forced from the ground near Grand Central Station on East 41st street from Third to Lexington Avenue forcing people to evacuate the area and also causing subway delays. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

As you probably know by now, there was a steam pipe explosion yesterday in Midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from our office. When we got the word, I grabbed my camera and took off toward the plume. Producer MJ Davis and I made our way through the crush of humanity and landed a block away from the explosion, in the middle of a speculation extravaganza. "That sound is the building collapsing," said one guy who probably wasn't a structural engineer. Another woman was yelling that someone had reported seeing a giant fireball. We didn't see any evidence of that either, but the geyser of steam and debris was visually horrifying enough. The street was filled with smoke and sirens, and there was no visibility whatsoever through 41st Street. From the fog, a seemingly endless parade of ragged New Yorkers in impossibly filthy business suits emerged. It was, needless to say, evocative of a much darker hour.

I pointed my camera at the plume and saw that my battery was out. I'd been filming a behind-the-scenes-of-the-BPP piece over the last two days and hadn't gotten a chance to charge up. At that point, I briefly indulged in some cursing and self-loathing, which lasted until I remembered my backup. I had brought the little digital still camera, a birthday present from a few years back (thanks Mom!) It too could roll small bits of video...there would be salvation! No, not really. It died too. I suddenly remembered running those batteries dry a few weekends ago in Atlantic City while taking pictures of my friends eating funnel cake and lamenting the loss of their chips at 4 am on the boardwalk.

I made my way over to a Duane Reade drugstore, hoping to find some way of documenting what was going on. It turns out that they sell video cameras. I saw one behind the counter that looked kind of like a bad iPod knockoff, on sale for 40 bucks. I pleaded with woman in front of me to let me cut her in line. I told her I was press and was trying to cover the same explosion that she was miserably (and very loudly) misreporting to whoever was on the other end of her pink Motorola Razr. She would not relent (or really even make eye contact with me) so I waited, cursing and loathing her, while she bought some mouthwash and chewing gum.

A few minutes later, I was back on the street. Luckily there were very few injuries and more than a few people who were willing to share their real stories. Here's what we finally got with that drugstore camera.

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Yeah. Probably just a promotion for 'Cloverfield.'

Sent by Shawn Shahani | 4:00 PM | 7-19-2007

Isn't it interesting in the day of the citizen journalist that two professional journalists had to use equipment that citizens would have and use to cover such an event?

Sent by Steve Petersen | 10:47 PM | 7-19-2007

This is great. About Steve's point: It is interesting, but the last two recording devices I've been issued and used as a reporter at a major market public radio station have been consumer, not professional models. So the technology's out there--in many forms-- and has been available to nearly everyone for some years (and not that expensively, either.) This is not to say that everyone could do what Win did with this camera in this situation. You can have amazing professional-type tools to wave around if you find yourself in the middle of something like this, or you can have adequate tools, really good skills and a lot of relevant experience.

Sent by Diantha | 12:07 PM | 7-20-2007

People everywhere in the US need to ask themselves if they want politicians who roll back taxes, or if they want to have safer infrastructure. It's not just pipes that need inspection and repair, but also America's roads, bridges and such. Sure we aren't massively crumbling away yet, but a growing number of our feats of engeneering are getting old and do need attention.

"I pleaded with woman in front of me to let me cut her in line. I told her I was press and was trying to cover the same explosion that she was miserably (and very loudly) misreporting to whoever was on the other end of her pink Motorola Razr."

I hope you're kidding. You are right?

It wasn't a scoop. There were more than enough photos and video recordings of it. The lady ahead of you didn't impede a defining moment in journalism. I assure you, society will manage to cope with what you were able to get, and would have still marched forward if you had gotten no footage at all.

Sent by Brian | 1:38 PM | 7-20-2007

It's refreshing to see journalism that is not amazing because of the available resources, but rather the ways in which a story is told. A perfect example of this is a series PBS has been airing on the Tavis Smiley show.

The series titled 'Right to Return' is by Academy Award winning director Jonathan Demme. He and a few other producers talk to residents living in the lower ninth ward post-Katrina. The interviews are filmed with a couple of cheap cameras, and are not produced with any fancy editing techniques. You really get the sense that you're there with these people as they describe how they're moving on following their tremendous loss.

Here's more info:
http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/special/righttoreturn.html

Here are some clips:
http://youtube.com/results?search_query=demme+pbs&search=

Sent by Sean Powers | 3:52 PM | 7-20-2007