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 contained asbestos, the authorities said.
Test results that showed there was asbestos in the steam line raised concerns about the long-term effect of exposure through debris, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at an afternoon news conference.
A total of 49 buildings were evacuated, and Fifth Avenue between 19th and 22nd Streets remained closed, he said. Residents in the area could be displaced for a few days, though he said it’s possible buildings farthest from the blast could be cleared as early as Thursday evening.
Eric F. Phillips, press secretary for the mayor, said Con Edison would pay for hotel accommodations through its claims process. About 500 people were displaced and nearly 250 residential units affected, the press office said.
While five people received “very minor injuries” when the 20-inch pipe burst around 6:40 a.m., no one was seriously injured, according to the New York Fire Department, which initially evacuated people from 28 buildings near the rupture on 21st Street and Fifth Avenue.
The city is still investigating the cause of the explosion, Mr. de Blasio said. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that the state’s Department of Public Service would also investigate the explosion.
Mr. de Blasio urged people whose clothes were contaminated with debris from the blast to remove them, bag them and take a shower. Clothes can be turned in at a site set up by Con Edison at 22nd Street and Broadway.
[What is Asbestos? Read more on how this could cause health issues after the Flatiron Explosion]
There is concern over whether asbestos entered nearby buildings through air-conditioning systems, and officials will work to determine when they will be safe to enter, the mayor said.
“We’re going to work from an abundance of caution,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Now that we know there’s asbestos present, we’re not going to cut any corners. We’re going to be very thorough.”
In a tweet, Mr. Phillips said the cleanup will start with buildings further from the blast “to free up buildings as fast as it is safe to do.”
The blast startled those in the area, some of whom immediately braced for the worst.
“I knew either it was a World Trade Center kind of thing or a plane crash,” said Doreen Black, who was in bed in her apartment at 22nd Street and Broadway when the explosion occurred. “That was my fear.”
Ms. Black, who has lived there since 1991, said she expected to be evacuated, so she started packing up a suitcase. “I took down my little wheelie from the closet and started packing,” Ms. Black said. “My husband thought I was crazy. He went back to sleep.”
City officials said the hole in the street caused by the rupture was about the length of one and a half cars, and that it was one car length wide.
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.
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,” Mr. Nigro said.
James Vreeland, a 49-year-old engineer, was walking down 22nd Street on Thursday afternoon carrying a large white garbage bag full of the clothes and a backpack he had worn that morning, searching for a station where someone could tell him whether his possessions were contaminated.
Mr. Vreeland had been on the way to his office at about 7:30 a.m. when he saw the giant plume of smoke. He said he walked closer to see what was going on when he started to feel white flakes fall on him.
“It was stupid,” Mr. Vreeland said. “But it’s human nature to be curious.”
The 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, delivers 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.
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