A Street-Level View of Disaster

My Experience During the 2007 New York City Steam Explosion and Thoughts About Where Your Employees Will Turn in a Crisis

You’re out of town on business in a big city. You’ve been invited to a cocktail reception, so you drop your suitcases off in your hotel and, since the restaurant is only a few blocks away, you decide to walk. After a block, you turn right and on both sides of the street, dozens of business-clad men and women are running toward you. 

It’s a bit of an odd but not altogether baffling image. After all you are in a crowded business district, and it’s rush hour. Still, why are so many people running in the same direction? Are they rushing to catch the same train? 

As they approach, the image comes into focus. What you thought were expressions of hectic hurry are actually looks of fear. Concern is really crying. Panting is distant shouting. Clarity finally comes when the people rush passed you and you hear, “Don’t go that way! There’s been a huge explosion!” 

A tide is rising around you. You feel an undertow of panic tugging at your feet and, as far as you know, what you do in the next few moments could determine your safety. Your brain and body are about to take over. What do you do?

View from the street.
(photo by Arvind Grover)

I experienced this very moment on July 18, 2007, at about 6 p.m. I was in New York City and had just turned the corner onto 39th Street from Madison Avenue. I didn’t know it at the time, but an underground steam pipe had just exploded about two blocks away, near Lexington and 41st Street. I spent the next hour on the street trying to figure out what was happening and what I should be doing about it. 

This experience, and the internal struggle that followed, is an example of what a person might feel when faced with a novel situation or incongruous information. It’s a moment of dissonance that any individual will be driven to quell so that he or she can evaluate circumstances, make decisions and take action. While hardly an opportunity for reflection at the time, I later realized I had been given a literal street-level view of crisis and how context, relevant personal experience and trust work together to ensure, or undermine, successful communication.

Context

The explosion explains the behaviors, thoughts and feelings of the people on the street that day, but only on a superficial level. Of course, if something blows up, you’re going to run. But a fuller understanding of context provides a deeper appreciation for what people were experiencing at that moment. Context helps determine how available information is interpreted. And those interpretations, not the facts, elicit reactions and drive decisions.

The context here is easy to grasp: New York City. And while the magnitude of a steampipe explosion has very little comparison to the horrific events of September 11, 2001, those events are part of New York’s new mythology. New York is now a place where horrific things have happened which, unfortunately, makes it a believable setting where horrific things can happen again. Add to this the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, the Secretary of Homeland Security said he had a “gut feeling” that something bad was going to happen in the United States. 

Without that context, my initial interpretation of seeing business people running down the street might have been the obvious cliché: New Yorkers rushing. But, thanks to the new context, I had a second, less savory option: New Yorkers escaping. Those of us in the vicinity of that blast were primed for a disaster. All we needed was a cue, and streets filling with smoke was a pretty good one.

So, let’s place this experience in a corporate setting. Imagine your company is about to announce a merger. Based on recent events, other communications and the current state of the company, how will employees interpret this announcement? Will they see this as merely a precursor to lay-offs, and start running; or will they view it as an opportunity and look for ways to help? These are just two possible interpretations, but they suggest how context can be predictive of success or failure, and how it can serve as a guide for when and how information is delivered.

Personal Experience

In his book Sources of Power, researcher and author Gary Klein argues that personal experience often plays a more significant role than reason and logic when individuals make critical decisions, particularly when time is an issue. The uncanny ability some people have of knowing what to do when it matters is derived from a life rich in experiences and a perceptive subconscious able to recognize patterns and match current circumstances to past results. They know what to do because they’ve done it, or something like it, before.

For example, when training flight attendants how to deal with emergencies, airlines don’t simply tell them what they may need to do in a crash; they simulate it. They toss them fully clothed into a pool so their bodies will create memories upon which they can draw during an actual crisis. This is a way of implanting an action plan in the individual, one he or she can replay when panic might otherwise stall good judgment.

Simulations and exposure to real experience create a sensory databank the mind will scour when seeking a course of action. This is particularly important in critical moments, when there is little time to examine options, make strawmen or float trial balloons. Sharing case studies, documenting lessons learned and pure story telling are ways of creating experience, even vicarious ones, that can be useful to an individual who will someday face the same or similar circumstances. Without personal experience (or, in their absence, guidelines or leadership) employees in novel situations will act more like I did that day in New York, spending precious time wondering what to do while the contagion of stress threatens to spread.

Trust

As I zig-zagged my way through unfamiliar New York streets, trying to distance myself from the explosion, I was struck by the various mental states of the people around me. Some were completely oblivious, walking casually toward the area I had just been chased out of. They were laughing, cavorting and, generally, acting normal. These people could not possibly know what was going on, which, as I thought about it, was completely feasible. After all, I was only a couple blocks from the explosion when it happened, and I hadn’t heard it. The sky was overcast, so the billowing steam we thought was smoke wasn’t that easy to discern from the clouds. The flow of pedestrians was like a crooked stream, swirling with eddies and cross currents of awareness. Physically, we were shoulder-to-shoulder, mentally we were worlds apart.

Perhaps in greater numbers than the oblivious, though, were the anxious. I put myself in this category. This anxiety comprised a continuum that ranged from curiosity to near hysteria. Imagine the distinct reactions you would have upon hearing the following bits of news that were plaguing us on the street: “Grand Central Station blew up.” “I think a dirty bomb went off.” “A building is about to fall.” 

Anxiety is a feeling of unease that results from uncertainty, or from being faced by a challenge one feels incapable of meeting. There was a frustrating and fearsome gap between what we knew and what we wanted to know. We had all been infected with incomplete information, and anxiety was the symptom. 

So, the hunt for information began, a hunt guided by trust. In my case, I was in an unfamiliar city. I needed to understand what was happening, figure out where I had wandered to and make the best possible decision about whether to run, stay put or go back to my hotel. So, I reached out to a reliable source of information, my wife, even though she was hundreds of miles away in Tampa, Fla.

Something similar happens in an organization. When faced with new or difficult information, people will turn to the sources they trust. It might not be the source you want them to turn to, say a manager prepped with talking points, or even to a source that seems to make sense, such as a co-worker. Instead, they will go to whomever has built trust with them in the past. That could be a blogger, a friend or a cable news show. But, a fact more reassuring to a communicator played out during that hour: a crisis is a great opportunity to build trust. 

I had reached out to my wife for two reasons: she would have more resources than I did and she’s tenacious. So when nothing about the explosion could be found on the television news, she called the news desk at the Tampa Fox affiliate. The reporter there hadn’t heard anything yet either but, sensing a potential story in the making, he called the New York affiliate. During the next few minutes, that reporter called my wife back two or three times. I was a little cynical. If this is a nightmare scenario, this reporter is going to relish having a local resident on the ground with a cell phone. But for whatever the reason, we had his attention and he was my best link to reliable information. 

He acknowledged that the video feed he was getting from the news helicopter in New York looked bad, but the blast was a manhole cover exploding due to heavy rain, he said, and not the work of explosives.

I shared this information with people on the street. This should help allay concerns, I thought. The problem was, no one believed me. The anxiety was not abated and, perhaps, this apparently flimsy explanation might have even stoked it. 

This frustrating situation might sound familiar. The information is there, but no one is biting, or it’s having an unintended effect. There are at least two issues at play: the credibility of the messenger, and a seeming incongruity between the evidence and the explanation.

In those first few minutes after the explosion, there were no experts on the street, and we were all leaning on each other for information. But who was I to say what was really going on? Seeing the reaction of others, I started to have doubts myself about what I had been told. In restrospect, the Fox reporter was like a distant, corporate honcho, and the people on the street were my office mates. I assumed these locals would have seen a manhole cover explode before, right? Our basic need was to hear the news from someone on the ground, someone with recognized authority. Even though I was talking to an apparently dogged reporter, I was just some guy who was as clueless as everyone else, regardless of how good my information was.

Aside from my lack of credibility, the explanation seemed hardly satisfactory based on the evidence before us. By this time, police were stopping traffic and a wall of smoke had filled the valley of high rises on Madison Avenue. The geyser of steam at the heart of this fiasco was roaring like the five-alarm fire we thought it was. And, to stimulate my deeper fears, unmarked, black vehicles raced up and down the street with sirens wailing. Could this really be a manhole cover explosion? It didn’t seem likely. 

In the end, that hometown reporter’s information was more accurate than anything else I had heard on the street that day. If I had trusted him, I would have gone back to my hotel room 30 minutes sooner and saved myself an unsettling dose of adrenaline. But the reporter’s actions, and the quality of his information, demonstrate how trust can be made during a crisis. His responsiveness, his accuracy and his acknowledgement that things looked worse than they were might not have won me over in the heat of the moment, but when I later reflected upon the experience, I not only realized that he was more or less right, but that he was trying to do me a very big favor. As result, I have a new sense of trust in this station’s news team.

Conclusion

While incomplete information can serve as a troubling infection (a reality which encourages some to remain silent while employees wander their proverbial sidewalks in search of answers), good information — wisely conceived, crafted and delivered — can inoculate people against panic, doubt and anxiety. In less stressful moments, it can keep us oblivious to doubt and better equipped to deal with change and challenge. More specifically, understanding context helps guide what, how and when information is disseminated. This context can be elucidated through employee research and ongoing dialog. Personal experience can be augmented on the job through training and various forms of information sharing. And, lastly, trust can be built by being responsive, accurate and open over time. 

A few days after my experience in New York, as I was collecting my thoughts for this piece, I stumbled across a poem titled In Memoriam, Section CVIX by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was a little maddening (or perhaps encouraging) to see how economically and romantically he expressed some of the same points I had hoped to make. As he put it:

“Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail

Against her beauty? May she mix

With men and prosper! Who shall fix

Her pillars? Let her work prevail.”

Indeed, let the work of Knowledge prevail. But even Tennyson acknowledged, as I have learned, that beautiful truth needs its older sibling, Wisdom, to produce fruitful results:

“A higher hand must make her mild,

If all not be in vain, and guide

Her footsteps, moving side by side

With Wisdom, like the younger child …”

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