Steam pipe explodes in Flatiron District, exposing area to asbestos, mayor says

Smoke billows from a steam pipe explosion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Thursday morning.
Smoke billows from a steam pipe explosion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Thursday morning. Photo Credit: Louis Lanzano

A steam pipe explosion sent a plume of smoke and debris contaminated with asbestos above Fifth Avenue Thursday morning, forcing evacuations of 49 buildings, displacing about 500 residents and sparking concerns about exposure to the dust, the mayor said.

The 86-year-old pipe burst at about 6:40 a.m. on Fifth Avenue, between 20th and 21st streets, officials said. Eight people, including five civilians and three public service members, had minor injuries, but none were taken to the hospital, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

Tests of the debris confirmed the presence of asbestos, but the air was deemed safe a few hours after the incident, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at an afternoon news conference.

“Brief exposure is not a problem through the air but if this material is in a building, if it’s on clothing, that is a real concern,” de Blasio said. “We do not want anything that might cause repeated exposure.”

Anyone who believes the debris got on their clothing was asked to remove it, bag it up and turn it over to Con Edison at two decontamination tents set up at 22nd Street and Broadway and 19th Street and Broadway, the utility said. People will be compensated for the clothing.

Of the 49 evacuated buildings in the area — between 19th and 22nd streets and between Sixth Avenue and Broadway — 44 need to be checked for asbestos, and people will not be allowed back in until they are cleared. De Blasio expected the inspections, which include 249 residential units, to take at least a couple of days.

For anyone who lives or works in the affected buildings, a reception center has been set up at The Clinton School at 10 E. 15th St. It will be open Friday beginning at 8 a.m., per the mayor’s office.

The center — run by the city Office of Emergency Management and the American Red Cross of New York — is for information inquiries only, not shelter services. If people have medicine, pets or other urgent needs in their apartments, a request should be filed at the center and the FDNY and NYPD will try to retrieve them, de Blasio said.

The cause of the rupture was under investigation. No agency was doing active work at the site recently, the mayor said.

Thomas Spedalere, 42, was walking on 20th Street Thursday morning when he “came upon a shooting jet of steam.”

“It was spraying very intensely,” he said. “A lot of grit and dirt came up. It got into my sunglasses, my clothes and my hat. I washed off my arms as much as I could.”

He said he was told to wash his clothes and his face.

“The smell of that steam bugged me out a little. Reminded of 9/11, the pervasive smell of steam,” he added.

Rachel Glasser, 19, who lives in a building near the explosion, said her mom woke her up “in a frazzled state,” telling her they needed to evacuate.

“There were loud noises, like really loud construction that wasn’t ending,” she said. “We could see the explosion from our windows. My mom told me ‘pack everything you need.’ ”

Glasser packed her laptop, chargers and contacts.

“At first, I wasn’t scared. But when my mom told me to pack stuff, I started freaking out,” she said, sitting with her grandparents in a plaza at 23rd Street and Broadway at about 10 a.m. She had been out of the building since 7 a.m.

Others, like 23-year-old Bethy Solomon, of East Harlem, were met by police officers as they tried to get into their offices.

“Nobody could get through,” she said. “The cops warned us if you have an office on Fifth Avenue, you’re not working . . . I was very confused. Everybody else was on their way and I didn’t know what to do and where to go.”

Tatiana DeOliveira, 23, who works at a coffee cart on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, arrived at about 6:50 a.m., right around the time cops started showing up, she said.

“For an hour and a half, it was really intense steam coming out. It was really insane,” she said. “Then the helicopters started showing up. There were hundreds of people and cops and firefighters.”

“I’m not going to lie it’s been good for business,” she added.

Eleven years before Thursday’s pipe burst, a similar explosion happened in midtown, killing one person and injuring more than 30 others, according to a New York Times report at the time.