Falling ice poses threat for pedestrians

New York, NEW YORK--Following major snowstorms in January and February and a harsher than normal winter, falling icicles became a renewed concern in a metropolis littered with tall buildings and new construction projects.

From Lower Manhattan to Midtown to suburban Long Island, news reports of injuries and urban snow dangers are becoming more commonplace. In the New York City metro area and other parts of the country, the danger has intensified this year with cities smothered under unusually harsh winter and arctic vortex conditions. On top of slippery sidewalks and freezing wind, New Yorkers now have to watch out for lethal yet commonplace machinery as well as dangling ice daggers falling from the sky.

On Jan. 22, a pedestrian known only as “Barry” was walking on 48th street between 5th and 6th avenue when he was struck by an icicle from the top of a building. The jagged piece of ice carved through part of his face, opening a wound through his lip and cheek, also scratching his eye. Barry then fled into an alley and collapsed on the ground, covered in blood.

“He had to sit down because of shock. The blow was hard. It’s scary,” said Angela Ragouzeos to the New York Post. Ragouzeos, a 31-year-old jeweler, had called 911 to report the injury. “I thought someone had thrown a bottle at him.” Other bystanders told reporters that the icicle was the size of a “football.” Later in the day, witnesses saw firefighters knocking ice off the building’s roof.

A sign in the Financial District warns pedestrians of falling ice. Photo by Lucy LeFever.

Winter hasn’t been easy on New Yorkers this year, delivering record-breaking chills caused by sudden stratospheric warming in the arctic and a strengthening of the jet stream. What many are calling this year’s “Polar Vortex” lowered temperatures in Central Park to 4 degrees Jan. 7--the first time in recorded history. The previous record was 6 degrees, set more than a century ago in 1896.

The danger of falling ice has worsened in New York City, where the unusually harsh winter climate creates damp snow that freezes more easily on tall buildings. This snow slowly compounds into sharpened icicles, posing a grave threat to pedestrians below when the ice inevitably drops. “Recently, at a Long Island Railroad station in Hicksville, NY, I looked up and saw a set of icicles hanging precariously over people coming up a stairwell to the train platform,” said Paul Glader, a journalism professor at The King’s College, in mid-February. “It looked like the Sword of Damocles, dangling over unsuspecting commuters.”

For a few days in February, downtown pedestrians were shocked to see ice shards falling from the heights of the 1 World Trade Center, a 1,776 f00t skyscraper known as the “Freedom Tower.” Physicists assessed that the ice was falling at around 100 miles per hour from the top of the 52-story skyscraper, which is nearing completion. The Port Authority closed the main entrance to a PATH train near the building during these rains of terror. Sidewalks and entrances near other tall buildings such as The New York Times building in Midtown have also been closed at times in recent weeks.

The Port Authority eventually closed down streets and station entrances, citing public safety as a concern. The New York Department of Buildings issued an inclement weather advisory warning on Feb. 11 in response to news reports of the Freedom Tower icicles. “Property owners have a legal responsibility to maintain their properties in a safe condition, and this obligation includes removing ice and snow,” the warning said. “If ice and snow removal is not possible, property owners and contractors should rope off the unsafe area.”

Most of the ice falling from the Freedom Tower had accumulated around a hoist used to construct the building. Crews took it apart, hoping it would solve the falling ice problem. Architects are still studying whether the slope of the building exterior and its spire also contribute to ice.

No matter where an architect is designing a building--from Tokyo to Toledo--ice accumulation is always a key consideration. Most building designs try not to trap water where it could collect and become a public menace, according to architecture experts. “You try to keep water off the façade of a building,” Fredric Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects chapter in New York, told The New York Times in 2011. “The last thing you want is water finding a place to accumulate.”

The Kings College, located in the midst of towering buildings and intense cold, is no exception to seasonal hazards. Makeshift signs throughout the Financial District tell passersby to “beware of falling ice.” Students and faculty have taken note.

“The signs in front of those buildings are likely just there to avoid lawsuits,” said freshman Josh Chiang. “Even so, I definitely appreciate the reminder. It’s good to know that potential peril lies atop every building I pass by.”

New Yorkers don’t even need to look above for a reason to fear these threatening blades of ice. On the same day that paramedics patched up Barry’s mutilated face, a suburban Long Island man suffered a similar misfortune. The unnamed elderly man in Valley Stream had three of his fingers sliced open when he jammed his hand in a snow blower. He’d been trying to unclog the device, a necessary part of operating a snow blower, when he suffered the injury. One of his fingers was severed completely by the incident, police said. The New York Times reported earlier this month that some local hospitals have seen a 300 percent increase in snow and ice-related injuries, including slips and falls.