Phobic's Nightmare: City Under Construction

One moment Jeff Brown and his girlfriend were strolling hand-in-hand down a Chicago street, and in the next he was pulling her out of a manhole.

"There was a bit of construction and sidewalk repair going on, and suddenly I was holding her hand above her head," said Jeff Brown, a 34-year-old technology manager. "She's not a tall woman and she would have been up to her waist if she had not caught herself with the other leg."

His stunned girlfriend walked home a bit scraped up and semi-barefoot, her sandal forever wedged beneath the street. For months, the frightened couple avoided manhole covers.

Brown and his girlfriend join many others in their close brush with city hazards. While the National Highway Traffic and Safety Association reports nearly 83,000 pedestrians die or are injured in motor vehicle accidents each year, several thousand suffer the other dangers of urban life.

Felled by fallen scaffolding, electrocuted by grates and maimed by flying debris, pedestrians across the United States sometimes feel like the victims of the national construction boom.

Scaffolding Death

Just this week, a worker plunged 42 stories to his death at a congested construction site in New York City. By some miracle, the falling scaffolding and building materials didn't strike passersby.

In Pittsburgh last year, a steel beam sent a loading dock crashing to the street, the third time at that building site that bolts had failed. The year before in Boston, 10 tons of scaffolding crashed into a shopping district, killing three.

New York City's top building official told the Daily News just last summer that she is afraid to walk under scaffolding because of falling debris from rooftop construction sites.

"I don't want to make you nervous, but ... I cross the street, thank you very much," said Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster.

In 2007, the city launched a task force to address the dangers caused by bolts, beams, two-by-fours and sheets of plywood falling from construction sites.

Jake Clark, a 65-year-old pedestrian, was struck by a 22-inch piece of metal that fell from the Time Warner Center in Manhattan during a windstorm in 2004, grazing his arm and sparing his life by inches.

Clark told he is "definitely shell-shocked," even four years later. "You never get over it."

"There are terrible dangers around when you are out and about," said Clark, who sought counseling after the accident and now avoids all scaffolding. "When I go by there it brings it all back. It's too hard mentally."

City officials acknowledge incidents are rare, but it's easy to develop a phobia about myriad of potential disasters.

"Some phobias are grounded in a bad experience, and others have been with the person as long as they remember," said Dianne Chambless, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Imaginary Fears

True phobias -- rather than the post-traumatic stress that probably precipitated Clark's brush with death -- are based on imagined rather than real fears, say psychologists.

"People who are really afraid of something collapsing or something falling on them under a window, or trains getting stuck, that's not phobia, that's just fear," said Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

David Kupfer, a Washington, D.C,. psychologist who specializes in anxiety treatment, has seen numerous patients who are paralyzed by the perceived dangers of city life.

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