CHELSEA, NY — A massive underground pipe explosion in the heart of Manhattan’s Flatiron District tore through Fifth Avenue like a volcano Thursday morning, spewing scalding steam and chunks of pavement high into the air at the start of the rush hour.
The blast ruptured an underground steam pipe at Fifth Avenue and East 21st Street, billowing thick clouds through the neighborhood that officials feared could be carrying asbestos and other toxins.
Three civilians, a police officer and a Con Edison worker suffered minor injuries during the 6:30 a.m. blast. Smoke continued to spew from the ground more than three hours into the emergency response as authorities tried to isolate the source, an FDNY spokesman said. At least 28 nearby buildings were evacuated.
A woodworker who was waiting outside his 21st Street building for a delivery saw the explosion happen and described the chaotic scene to Patch.
“I was standing there and all of a sudden I see a little steam coming up — just a little,” said Gustavo Benavides, 42, who said the ground was “rumbling, like an earthquake” after the blast.
“All of a sudden I see the street going up like a balloon. Five seconds [later] — a big explosion,” said Gustavo.
Mona Bodian, 62, who works in fire safety for a realty company was barred from entering her 21st Street building when she arrived for work at 7:30 a.m., she told Patch.
“It was smoke all over,” said Bodian, who described something in the smoke “like sand” that was “splashing” around and hit her in the face. “It was horrible,” she said.
The fear that asbestos was released in the steam caused Con Edison officials to tell anybody who was near the blast to take off their clothes, seal them in a bag and take a shower. Con Edison and city Department of Environment Protection workers were conducting tests to determine if contaminants were released.
Con Edison called the explosion a “steam rupture” and said crews have closed valves in the area, which may result in a loss of service for nearby buildings. Manhattan has a network of the pipes under its streets that carry steam from generators to heat and cool high rise buildings.
The city’s Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Esposito said officials will work to neutralize the area if asbestos is found present, which could result in days-long street closures.
“It could mean the closure of this avenue for at least a few days,” Esposito said, referring to Fifth Avenue during a Thursday morning press conference near the blast site.
More than 130 firefighters and 33 firetrucks rushed to the scene after reports of a “high-pressure steam explosion,” an FDNY spokesman said.
They were still working to contain the three-alarm explosion three hours later and were inspecting nearby manholes as a precaution. NYPD officers on the scene were directing traffic as several roads in the area were blocked.
The chief spokesman for Mayor De Blasio said in a tweet that the explosion did not appear to cause any structural damage.
“First responders are finishing turning off water mains now,” spokesman Eric Phillips said. “FDNY inspecting nearby manholes to ensure safety. Precautionary and temporary evacuations of nearby buildings. Travel delays will likely remain.”
The blast does not appear to involve any criminality, a police spokesman said.
In 2007, another steam pipe explosion near Grand Central Station left one dead and injured more than 30. The New York Times reported at the time that scalding steam and pieces of pavement rained down on East 41st Street and Lexington Avenue as evening commuters dashed for cover. That pipe was nearly 90-years-old at the time of the blast.
At the time, The Times reported that there had been more than a dozen similar explosions in the city since 1987, including one close to today’s scene. A blast at Gramercy Park in 1989 killed three people, including two Con Edison workers, and caused millions of dollars in damage.
On Thursday, early morning commuters stopped to gawk at the massive plume of smoke stalling traffic.
Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic from 30th Street to 14th Street, causing a morning rush hour nightmare. R and W trains were bypassing the 23rd Street station in both directions, MTA officials said.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson was on the explosion’s scene surveying the damage.
Con Edison crews are on the scene making repairs.
This is a developing story refresh this page for updates.
Lead photos courtesy of Council Speaker Corey Johnson and used with permission of Patrick Keenan/Veronica Ramirez
Noah Mansker contributed reporting to this article