By Sabina Mollot
Emergency responders are still trying to find out the cause behind an early morning explosion in the heart of the Flatiron District. The blast occurred at 6:40 a.m. on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, sending a massive gray cloud shooting dozens of feet into the air and causing traffic shutdowns from 19th to 23rd Streets from Broadway to Sixth Avenue.
Eleven buildings were evacuated and surrounding streets were off limits to residents and workers until police began opening some streets at around 8:40 a.m., and office buildings began letting employees back inside. Town & Village’s block on West 22nd Street was one of those affected.
Town & Village driver Ray Pimentel was in his truck with stacks of this newspaper on his way to the office when he heard the massive “Boom!” nearby. Pimentel said had he not been caught at a red light on Sixth Avenue, “I would have been right in the hole in front of Chase Bank (on Fifth Avenue). I’m alive because of five seconds.”
He stopped his truck in the middle of Fifth Avenue and waited there for the Fire Department, which he said arrived in about seven minutes. Oddly, the blast didn’t smell too strong at that time.
“It was like cooking gas, you know like when you’re doing a barbecue, clean, not too bad,” he recalled.
One hundred and thirty-eight firefighters responded to the scene where miraculously no one was reported injured. Lingering smoke and an accompanying smell have remained as the responders remained on site.
Con Ed said on Twitter that its crews were closing valves in the area, which will result in the loss of steam service to some buildings. “People are advised to stay clear of the area for safety reasons,” the company said.
Later, the utility stated that environmental testing is being conducted to determine if asbestos or other contaminants are present. Con Ed added, “As a precaution anyone in the vicinity of the rupture who was covered in material is advised to bag their clothing and shower.”
An hour after the blast began, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sent New Yorkers an emailed advisory to avoiding smoke exposure from structural fires by closing windows while indoors and reducing outdoor activity where smoke is present. The department also suggested that anyone with a heart or breathing conditions such as asthma may be more sensitive and should seek immediate medical attention if they experience a worsening of their condition, shortness of breath, or chest pains.
Update: At 10: 20 a.m., The building housing T&V’s office (and many others, including the Washington Post and Lanvin) management alerted office tenants that the FDNY had sounded another alarm due to a number of manholes exploding from 19th to 21st Streets. With other manholes being a potential risk as well as the possibility of a water main break, buildings in the immediate area were being evacuated.
The building’s super said while steam was still shooting out, responders had begun letting it out in a controlled way from a manhole on 23rd Street.
On Thursday afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would direct the Department of Public Service to conduct an investigation into the cause of the explosion and determine “whether any utility activities contributed to it.”
Video by Ray Pimentel
Photos by Sal Governale