The Wall Street Journal - July 21, 2018
Blast, which causes minor injuries to five people, spews mud, debris and asbestos into the air during morning rush hour
y Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Katie Honan and Charles Passy Updated July 19, 2018 5:43 p.m. ET 60 COMMENTS NEW YORK—A nearly century-old steam pipe exploded in Manhattan Thursday morning, tearing open a city street and sending mud and asbestos spewing into the air as commuters headed to work, officials said.
The blast erupted in the Flatiron District at 6:39 a.m., emitting thick plumes of roaring steam that rose at least 22 stories high, and grayish debris blanketed nearby streets.
“All of a sudden I heard ‘Pow!’” Shella Eckhouse said. “There was debris coming down and steam flying. I was covered in mud.”
Ms. Eckhouse, a Manhattan resident who works at a jewelry business, was riding a Citi Bike to an exercise class in Chelsea when the pipe exploded just a few feet away. She said she “pedaled so fast” to get away as quickly as possible.
Within minutes she had parked her Citi Bike, made her way to the gym, toweled herself down and started class.
More than 100 firefighters and medical personnel, as well as 25 firetrucks, responded to the scene. Five people suffered minor injuries, the Fire Department New York said.
Firefighters and police cordoned off a four-block area around the site at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street. Officials said 49 commercial and residential buildings in the area, including 28 in the main blast area, had been evacuated, and residents wouldn’t be able to return for at least a few days.
Bill de Blasio said debris from the explosion tested positive for asbestos but air in the area was clean.
“There is real concern about whether any debris entered into buildings or into air-conditioning systems,” he said Thursday, after arriving at the scene hours after the blast.
"So there is going to be thorough assessment to make sure that all the buildings are clean and safe,” he said.
Those who were in the vicinity of the Manhattan blast were advised to bag their clothing and shower. Con Edison has set up decontamination stations where people can drop off exposed clothing.
The explosion left a large crater on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street and a smaller hole on Fifth Avenue and 20th Street. Mr. de Blasio said Fifth Avenue between 19th and 22nd streets would likely be closed until the weekend.
The mayor said investigators were still trying to determine what caused the explosion. The steam pipe that exploded was 20 inches in diameter and from 1932, according to Con Edison. However, a Con Edison official said steam pipes have no expiration dates and age doesn’t necessarily play a factor when they fail.
Ernest Hinnant, who works in the area at a co-working company, got off the subway at Union Square just before 6:45 a.m. He noticed the steam but thought it was coming from a restaurant. When he turned toward Fifth Avenue, he saw a cloud plume and heard the roar of steam.
“There’s a solid sort of substance coming out of the cloud that’s sort of coating the ground. At first I honestly thought that the solid substance was ash and it was a fire, but it’s just gray and not ash,” Mr. Hinnant said.
He said two cars were “totally covered in whatever is falling out of the thing.”
The blast disrupted the morning commutes of riders on the R and W subway lines. Those trains bypassed 23rd Street in both directions because of the incident, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
A shaken Ms. Eckhouse attended her exercise class after the explosion, but she was somewhat philosophical about what occurred.
“It’s New York City,” she said. “Anything can happen anytime.”