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Steam pipe explosion cleanup continues as some buildings reopen

There is still not a clear timeline for when all Flatiron residents and workers will be able to return to the area around the blast.

Pedestrian access was still restricted at Fifth Avenue

Pedestrian access was still restricted at Fifth Avenue and 19th Street on Sunday, through past the blast site between 21st and 22nd streets. Photo Credit: Vincent Barone

The city on Sunday began reopening some buildings to tenants in the cordoned-off zone around last week’s Flatiron steam pipe explosion.

Nine buildings at the scene were deemed safe for occupancy Sunday as the city continued to inspect the interior of structures in the neighborhood ahead of the workweek.

The buildings that have been cleared are: 119 Fifth Ave., 146 Fifth Ave., 162 Fifth Ave., 9 W. 19th St., 9 W. 20th St., 19 W. 21st St., 22 W. 21st St., 7 E. 20th St. and 11 W. 19th St. (which includes 17 W. 19th St., 10 W. 20th St., and 16 W. 20th St.)

There is still not a clear timeline, however, for when all residents and workers will be able to return to the area, officials said earlier Sunday afternoon.

Hundreds of workers for Con Edison and the city were at the scene Sunday, near Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, where the blast on Thursday sent plumes of smoke into the air and left a massive crater on the block.

The night before, crews completed facade cleanings for the roughly 45 buildings that were affected by the blast, allowing the city to start internal building inspections. But the reopening of businesses and homes will largely depend on the results of those inspection, according to reps for Con Edison and the city's Office of Emergency Management.

That process will happen on a building-by-building basis, according to Nancy Silvestri, a spokeswoman for OEM. Staff from the Department of Environmental Protection and the city’s health department are conducting visual inspections and air quality tests to search for contaminants within buildings.

“It’s going to be specific to each individual building, depending on whether they find internal contamination or not,” she said.

Alfonso Quiroz, a spokesman for Con Ed, reasoned that the reopening of all the buildings could take “a couple of days, depending on what is found inside the buildings.” He said Con Edison is currently working to shrink the zone to allow for pedestrians and vehicles to access more of the cordoned-off space that stretches along Fifth Avenue, from 19th Street to about halfway between 21st and 22nd streets.

“We’ve been working to clean the surfaces of streets, sidewalks and building exteriors to shrink the zone and get people back home as quickly as we can,” Quiroz said.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on Sunday, 22nd Street was reopened to pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

The uncertain timeline for the cleanup has been stressful for shop owners and the roughly 500 residents who were displaced by the explosion on Thursday.

Layla Law-Gisiko, a Flatiron resident and Community Board 5 member whose building was evacuated Thursday night, was one of many residents trying to make arrangements to get to work on Monday, along with her husband and teenage son, who is starting an internship.

“The thing that is really difficult is that we cannot predict the cleanup,” she said on Sunday. “If it is another 12 hours before we can go back to our apartment — that’s a temporary solution. But if it’s going to be another two days, then I need to make different types of plans.”

Law-Gisiko said she has been staying outside of the city during the cleanup and that it has been “extremely frustrating” trying to get updates, with different city agencies providing conflicting information.

“We’ve been getting all our updates from the news,” she said. “We’ve been left hanging.”

There will be two public briefings at the Clinton School (10 E. 15th St.) Monday evening, one at 5:30 p.m. for business and building owners and another at 7 p.m. for residents, officials said.

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