Forty-four of the nearly 50 buildings evacuated after an asbestos-lined, 86-year-old steam pipe exploded in the heart of the Flatiron District Thursday remain off limits as officials thoroughly assess the potential presence of asbestos.
Authorities are making progress in cleaning streets and buildings, however, and by Friday evening, 19th Street near Fifth Avenue was cleaned and poised to open. Fifth Avenue at 18th and 19th streets should be re-opening soon, too, according to Joe Esposito, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management.
Forty-nine buildings were originally evacuated when the 20-inch high-pressure pipe exploded, blowing a 15-foot crater in Fifth Avenue near 21st Street and burying Manhattan in a cloud of alternately white and black steam for hours.
Authorities have walked through about four dozen buildings to see if debris has gotten into them. There's no timetable on when all the streets will be opening back up or how long the cleanup will take. Residents won't be allowed to return to their homes -- with the exception of emergency needs -- until those assessments have been completed, which could take days.
"Asbestos is a killer, so we have to be very careful with how we clean the buildings, how we clean the streets," Esposito said at a news conference Friday evening.
Alfonso Queiroz of Con Edison echoed the sentiment: "As soon as we learned asbestos was involved, the game changed," he said, adding that environmental experts were enlisted to help the utility carefully remove materials and debris from the site. "We want to be really careful with how we handle this."
The utility is working through the weekend to clean up streets and buildings near the steam pipe explosion. Rain this weekend should help in washing away debris from the upper facades of the buildings, Esposito said. Meanwhile, crews will be putting a berm around the area of rupture to try to contain as much contaminated debris as possible, and then vacuum away the water.
Twenty-eight buildings are in what officials called the "hot zone," and 500 people have been displaced from nearly 250 units in those buildings, Mayor de Blasio said.
The other 21 buildings that were evacuated will be assessed, but de Blasio said the presence of asbestos is less likely there. There is "real concern" carcinogenic debris was thrown stories high by the rupture and could have gotten into people's buildings or air conditioners, de Blasio said Thursday.
The air in the immediate vicinity is safe and has no meaningful asbestos levels, the mayor said, but debris found on the ground after the blast did test positive.
People who live or work in the area should keep windows closed until clean-up is completed, the city's health department says.
Con Edison personnel will again be at three locations Saturday to provide assistance to affected residents. Those who can't get back into their homes because of the evacuation should meet with Con Edison for financial assistance inside the Clinton School at 10 East 15th St. from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. And on 19th Street and Broadway, and on 22nd Street and Broadway, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Con Edison personnel will be providing claim forms and accepting potentially contaminated clothing worn by people in the area.Claim forms for clothing compensation are also available online at coned.com.
Fifth Avenue will remain shut down in the area for days as authorities work to clean up the toxic scene, the mayor said. The immediate area runs from 500 feet east or west of Fifth Avenue on 20th and 21st streets, and 100 feet north and south on Fifth Avenue.
The FDNY decontaminated about 100 first responders a few blocks from the scene, and people were seen walking with masks over their faces on Sixth Avenue, concerned about what might be in the air. The blast also affected a gas line, water main and electrical power, which may take several days to restore.
A cause of Thursday's blast remains under investigation. Authorities say no Con Edison work was being done in the area, and there's no visible indicator to explain what happened. Gov. Cuomo has ordered a probe into any potential utility-related links.
At least five people suffered what officials called minor injuries.
The blast comes almost exactly 11 years to the day of an 83-year-old steam pipe explosion near Grand Central. That shot debris 40 stories in the air, raining mud on midtown, after authorities said the pipe failed.