Steam pipe explosion, asbestos testing in Flatiron District displaces 500 residents

A steam pipe explosion, left, in the Flatiron District on Thursday displaced Crystal Johnson, 30, right, and her two children, Tristen, 6, and Melina, 10.
A steam pipe explosion, left, in the Flatiron District on Thursday displaced Crystal Johnson, 30, right, and her two children, Tristen, 6, and Melina, 10. Photo Credit: Louis Lanzano

Crystal Johnson was getting her son ready for camp inside their apartment on 21st Street in the Flatiron District Thursday morning when “suddenly everything went sideways.”

Johnson and her two children, ages 6 and 10, are among roughly 500 New Yorkers who have been displaced by a steam pipe explosion that potentially exposed at least 44 buildings to asbestos-contaminated dust and debris in the Flatiron District, according to the mayor’s office.

“It sounded like a big truck, like something hit the floor and then it sounded like construction, loud noises,” Johnson, 30, said of the 6:40 a.m. blast that created a massive crater on Fifth Avenue, between 21st and 22nd streets.

Johnson went downstairs to take photos and videos of the scene, but when she went back to her apartment to get her children she was told the building was being evacuated.

As the city grapples with the task of helping displaced residents and testing buildings in the affected area, a reception center was set up for impacted New Yorkers at The Clinton School, located at 10 E. 15th St. The center will remain open until at least Sunday, officials said.

Standing outside of the reception center, Johnson said officials have told her they will keep everyone updated. In the meantime, she intends to stay with friends or family.

“I just wanted to see the set up,” she said of checking out the center. “They said for now they are not offering bed services. They are offering snacks, entertainment, etc.”

An Office of Emergency Management official confirmed the reception center is not offering shelter services, but it is where residents can request an emergency response member to go into their apartment to retrieve urgent necessities, like medicine, as well as pets.

Shay Koll, 38, arrived at the center Thursday evening with a bag of what he said was dust and debris from the explosion that covered the deck of his home on 16th Street and Fifth Avenue, which is technically outside of what Mayor Bill de Blasio described as the affected area.

“We were outside on the porch this morning having coffee and this started falling from the sky,” he said, gesturing to the sealed plastic bag.

The mayor, speaking at an afternoon news conference Thursday, said buildings between 19th and 22nd streets and between Sixth Avenue and Broadway would need to be tested for asbestos before residents and business owners could return — a process that could take several days.

Koll said at first, he didn’t think much of the dust and debris on his porch until city officials began to warn New Yorkers of the potential danger of asbestos. His next stop Thursday evening was to one of two decontamination tents — set up at 19th Street and Broadway and 22nd Street and Broadway — to drop off the bag for testing, he said.

“We try to enjoy the summer and be outside,” Koll said. “We have kids playing outside and they had been exposed to this, our outdoor space needs to be cleaned.”

Johnson also was headed to one of the decontamination tents. She said she doesn’t think she got anything on her clothes, but officials wanted her to go.

Con Edison and city officials urged anyone who was near the explosion to shower and place their clothing in a sealed bag, then bring it to one of the decontamination tents. The company said it is working to compensate people for their lost clothing.

“I don’t want to bring the kids back and expose them to it,” she said of her concerns over asbestos exposure. “I’m very angry and concerned. It’s not fair.”