National News

Steam Pipe Explodes in Manhattan’s Flatiron District

Posted July 19, 2018 1:31 p.m. EDT
Updated July 19, 2018 1:36 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — A steam pipe ruptured underneath a street in the Flatiron district of Manhattan on Thursday morning, producing a thick geyser of white smoke and debris that authorities said was probably contaminated with asbestos.

Remarkably, nobody was seriously injured, but the explosion forced evacuations, disrupted the morning commute and called to mind more serious blasts involving Con Edison’s steam distribution system.

Five people were hit with debris and suffered “very minor injuries” when the 20-inch pipe burst around 6:40 a.m., according to the New York Fire Department, which evacuated people from 28 buildings near the area of 21st Street and Fifth Avenue.

City officials were operating on the assumption that the pipe, which was installed in 1932, was lined with asbestos, and they cautioned people who were covered in debris to bag their clothes and take a shower.

About 100 firefighters who responded to the explosion were expected to be treated in asbestos decontamination units, and two decontamination centers for the general public were set up in the area, Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said.

“We are operating with an abundance of caution, of course,” Nigro said, adding that samples from the area were sent to a laboratory to confirm the presence of asbestos. “There is a problem with exposure, but how dangerous, the health department will have to evaluate that.”

If asbestos is confirmed, the area of the explosion, including the exterior of buildings, would need to be decontaminated, city officials said. That cleaning process could take several days, meaning that parts of busy lower Fifth Avenue could be shut down. Some people might have to relocate, the officials said.

Con Edison, which operates the system of steam piping, said that the explosion also disrupted some underground power and gas lines but did not cause outages.

“It will take a while to do repairs on them,” Nigro said.

Police had closed off several intersections, shutting down traffic on major thoroughfares, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that subway trains were being rerouted and bypassing stations. Offices in the area were also advising employees to take alternate routes to work.

Corey Johnson, the New York City Council speaker, tweeted a video of the explosion and said it was “a miracle no one was hurt.”

A network of steam piping meanders underneath New York City, and explosions are not uncommon. A pipe that blew up during an evening commute in July 2007 sent a 40-foot-high geyser of scalding, brownish steam over a busy midtown Manhattan intersection. One person was killed and dozens were injured.

That rupture caused millions of dollars in damages to buildings and led to lawsuits. A law firm said that the steam system had “a long documented history” of systemic problems.

The location on lower Fifth Avenue is about two blocks from where a major water main ruptured in January 1998, which caused a massive sinkhole and then a gas line to burst, spewing fire into the air. No one was injured.

In the nearby neighborhood of Gramercy Park, a steam pipe that exploded on 20th Street and Third Avenue in August 1989 spewed a pillar of steam and debris. Three people, including two Con Edison workers, were killed.

More than 100 miles of steam piping underneath New York City, one of the largest steam systems in the world, deliver heating and cooling to nearly 2,000 buildings. In the city, steam is also used at hospitals to sterilize equipment and at dry cleaners to press clothes.