Mayor: Asbestos Detected At Steam Pipe Explosion Site In Flatiron District

July 20, 2018 - 8:07 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Asbestos has been detected at the site of a massive steam pipe explosion that closed roads, disrupted subway service and forced the evacuations of dozens of buildings in the Flatiron District on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

PHOTOS: Flatiron Steam Pipe Explosion

"There was asbestos in the steam line casing, that's obviously a real concern to us," de Blasio said during an afternoon press conference. "So we've confirmed the presence of asbestos."

De Blasio said the air in the area is safe to breathe.

"The air cleared fairly quickly after the incident," de Blasio said. "There is no meaningful presence of asbestos in the air."

But there is concern about debris that is still visible on the street and the building façades, and whether it might have gotten into buildings or air conditioning units.

“That all needs to be cleaned up, there is real concern about whether any debris entered into buildings or into air conditioning systems so there’s going to be a thorough assessment to make sure that all the buildings are clear and safe,” de Blasio said. "There are 28 buildings in the area of greatest concern, 49 buildings overall that we're looking at and we need to check each building before they can go back to their normal functioning."

"For people who live and work in these buildings we are going to do our best to help them get back in as soon as possible," de Blasio said, but added that it may take a couple of days. "More likely, it will take two days or more to really clear the buildings and be confident that people can go back in."

The mayor said the streets will also be washed down to clear it of any contaminants.

The concern now is repeated exposure to asbestos and the city wants any clothes that may have been exposed to be handed in for inspection.

People in the area who believe their clothing was contaminated are being advised to bag it up and bring it to a Con Edison site established at 19th Street and Broadway, as well as 22nd Street and Broadway.

"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. We do not want anything that might cause repeated exposure," de Blasio said. "We want that clothing turned in, if there's evidence of material on the clothing that looks like the debris and the dust is still visible on the clothing we want that clothing turned in. Con Ed will compensate people in an appropriate fashion. We want anyone who thinks they're exposed to get out of that clothing -- shower, clean, put on new clothing. That's out of an abundance of caution."

Claim forms for compensation can be picked up at the clothing pickup sites, at the Clinton School at 10 E. 15th St., and at coned.com.

Earlier, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said approximately 100 fire department members as well as others who responded to the scene and some civilians would require decontamination. Decontamination zones have been set up at 22nd and 19th Streets.

"Anyone who feels they were affected by this and possibly contaminated can report there for evaluation," Nigro said. 

Dr. Erick Eiting of the Mount Sinai Downtown Network provided some advice for anyone who might be concerned about being exposed to asbestos.

“It really depends on what kind of exposure you had. If you’re worried that you maybe got asbestos on your clothes, you know, it’s important to try and get out of those clothes as quickly as possible. The patients that we really need to be concerned about are somebody who potentially inhaled asbestos,” Eiting told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Mack Rosenberg. “You will recall that on 9/11, a lot of the respiratory injuries that happened to the first responders were related to asbestos. So anybody who is concerned that they inhaled it, or who are experiencing pain in their chest or shortness of breath, should really come to the emergency room and get evaluated.”

Eiting said small exposures usually are not a big deal, but are still a reason to get evaluated if symptoms are present. He said given all that was released into the air in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Mayor’s office would sound a greater alarm if the air were still unsafe.

“We do a lot, and the city does a lot in terms of being able to assess the environment. If there were any kind of concern in terms of the air quality, we would be putting out alerts, and we would be expecting the Mayor’s office to be informing people that they need to go and get evaluated,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fifth Avenue between 19th and 22nd Street is closed off to traffic and will likely remain closed through Saturday or Sunday.

"The big part of this will be the clean up," Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito said during an earlier news conference. "We'll be decontaminating the entire area and that'll take at least a few days."

As WCBS 880’s Mike Smeltz reported, the timeline going forward is first an assessment and cleaning of the immediate area. Work will then begin on repairing the 15-foot by 20-foot crater left by the explosion, and fixing the gas, water, and electrical lines damaged in the blast.

There was work on a water main being done on Fifth Avenue across the street from where the pipe burst, but officials say for the moment, that appears to have nothing to do with the explosion.

Five people suffered minor injuries when the high-pressure steam line, installed in 1932, ruptured with what WCBS 880's Sean Adams described as "volcanic force" at 6:40 a.m. at Fifth Avenue at 21st Street.

"It really looked like something that you would see from like Iceland, some kind of geyser. It was just a plume of steam that just did not stop at all it just kept rising and rising," Adams reported. "Then as the wind shifted we started to get hit it felt like little droplets of moisture coming down on us. But when I looked down my equipment was completely covered, my clothing completely covered with a fine dust... I'm covered in it, my vehicle is a couple blocks away it's covered. So really just not safe to be in the vicinity."

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said debris covered nearby cars and chunks of concrete and pavement could be seen at the explosion site.

"There are cars that are right near where the main explosion happened they are covered in dirt and muck," Johnson said. "In the exact area where the explosion took place there is a huge amount of street concrete and pavement that was blown up."

Everyone could feel it, hear it, and of course, see it. Andrew Glazer lives on Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.

“It was pretty scary – just heard a big boom. I didn’t know what was going on, you know, I didn’t know if there was like something wrong with the fan in my room had exploded or something like that, and then I went to look out the window and I see a big cloud of smoke coming up,” he told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond.

Glazer said he was worried that the possible asbestos from the smoke would “totally screw up” his building.

“We have our front door open right now, and that’s kind of our biggest concern is I want to be able to stay within eye distance of the door to see whether or not the steam and the smoke is physically entering the building,” he said.

Adam Bloom, Entercom New York's digital executive director, said he was nearby on the 30th floor of a nearby building and could see the steam billowing high up into the air.

"I think what I recognized was the sound, there was just this absolute crazy loud sound that is just really powerful especially bouncing through the buildings in the city," said Adam Bloom, Entercom New York's digital executive director. "There's a lot of emergency personnel. From my vantage point every block has either a fire engine or ambulance around it."

David Matthews was sitting in his fifth-floor office facing the street when he heard the explosion.

“There was this massive, maybe 300-foot high column of steam pouring out of a really big hole in the middle of Fifth Avenue, with chunks of concrete all over the street,” he said.

Matthews said the first responders were on the scene in minutes and began evacuating buildings. Police officers directing traffic wore face masks, while firefighters and Con Edison workers closest to the site wore full hazmat suits.

Con Edison said they have been working to isolate the rupture and shut down nine to 10 valves in the area, impacting air conditioning and hot water service to 27 buildings. 

The cause is under investigation.

"It was a rupture, in other words a steam main broke, what caused it we have no idea at the moment," O'Brien said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has directed the Department of Public Service to conduct a full investigation into the cause and to determine whether any utility activities contributed to the incident.

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