Emergency workers spent the night testing the air for asbestos following a deadly steam pipe explosion that occurred just before 6 p.m. Wednesday near the corner of Lexington and 41st Street on Manhattan's East Side.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that at least one person was killed and about 30 more were injured in the massive blast, which disrupted subway service and forced the evacuation of several buildings in the area.
The explosion tore a crater in the street nearly the width of Lexington Avenue, and created a geyser of debris that rained down on passers-by as they fled the area.
“The police and fire trucks were coming from every which way,” said a witness. “Cops in the street were screaming Evacuate! Evacuate! Get off the block!’"
“I heard a big roaring noise and I felt the ground literally shaking,” said another.
Scenes of smoke billowing from city streets rekindled fears of 9/11 among city residents, but authorities say that the explosion was not terror-related.
The mayor said the 24-foot steam pipe, which was installed in 1924, likely exploded when a burst of cold water got into the pipe.
As of 11 p.m., the area between 40th Street and 43th Street and between Third and Vanderbilt Avenues remained closed off. New York City Office of Emergency Management is asking everyone to stay away from the so-called "Frozen Zone," and residents who live within the zone are being asked to remain in their buildings as officials test for possible asbestos in the air.
OEM Commissioner Joseph Bruno warned all those who live in area buildings to keep their windows closed, only use recycled air on air conditioning units, and alerted those who were exposed to debris to wash with soap and water then remove their clothing and put it in a plastic bag.
The city set up a decontamination center at Grand Central Station Wednesday night to hose off those who may have been in contact with the debris.
Con Edison shut off the feeder to the steam line.
The five-alarm fire caused the suspension of service in both directions on the Number 4 train between 86th Street and Bowling Green. Service on the Number 6 train was suspended between 59th Street and Brooklyn Bridge. The Number 5 train was running on the Number 2 train track from Nevins Street to 149th Street. Shuttle service between Grand Central Station and Time Square was suspended.
The Number 7 train was bypassing Grand Central Station. Commuters should also expect delays on Midtown buses. Metro North trains are still running.
Emergency crews were on the scene as steam and mud shot more than 20 stories from a gaping hole in the ground. It took more than 250 firefighters about three hours to control the scene.
“I saw a bus fly through the air and slam into the ground,” said a third witness. “Debris and smoke kept billowing out of the ground.”
Two people are reportedly in critical condition and a third is being treated for lesser injuries at New York Weill-Cornell Medical Center. Fourteen people were reportedly taken to Bellevue Hospital. Thirteen others were treated at other local hospitals. There is no word on their condition. Three firefighters and one police officer were among those who were injured.
"Time and again, New Yorkers have overcome challenges. I am heartened to know that as city officials work to overcome this challenge, New Yorkers will do everything they can to stand with them and to keep them in their hearts and prayers as they put their lives on the line," said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum in a statement.
There are also a number of streets closed to traffic. As of 11 p.m. the street closings were as follows:
• Lexington Avenue is closed between East 34th Street and East 57th Street.
• There is no cross-town traffic being allowed from East 41st Street to East 57th Street on Lexington Avenue.
• East Third Avenue is closed from East 38th Street to East 42nd Street. East 42nd Street is closed from Park Avenue to Third Avenue.
• Park Avenue is closed from East 34th Street to East 54th Street.
Six buildings surrounding the site of the explosion sustained minor damage to the windows on their lower levels. Buildings Department officials and firefighters are inspecting the integrity of four other near by buildings.
Con Ed Chief Executive Officer Kevin Burke said electric feeders were damaged by explosion, and that the utility is assessing if there will be damage to electricity in the region. As of Wednesday night, there were no electrical outages.
Burke said there are no preliminary concerns in the gas systems but about 15 to 20 customers were without steam service.
Verizon also lost some service as a result of the blast.
In 1989, a steam pipe explosion in Gramercy Park killed three people and injured 24 others.