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Dodging geysers and asphalt chunks, Manhattan carries on as steam pipe explodes beneath Fifth Avenue

The explosion hurled chunks of asphalt and concrete hundreds of feet into the air. Pedestrians sprinted into coffee shops, desperately searching for cover. Fire and car alarms blared.

When a steam pipe exploded in the Flatiron district of Manhattan early Thursday, it was the latest dramatic sign of the city's persistent infrastructure issues. For years, New York officials have had to deal with aging water and gas lines, along with a crumbling subway system that transports millions of commuters each day.

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No serious injuries were reported in the blast beneath Fifth Avenue at 6 40 a.m. Thursday, but utility Con Edison, which owns the subterranean pipe, warned people who may have gotten debris on them to bag their clothes and shower immediately as a precaution against possible asbestos exposure. Five people were hit with debris and suffered “very minor injuries,” according to the New York Fire Department. Several nearby buildings were evacuated. No construction was being done at the site at the time of the incident. Hours after the explosion, steam still billowed more than 10 stories into the air.

The 20-inch pipe was installed in 1932 and is part of nearly 100 miles of steam piping in the city. Fifth Avenue will remain shut down in the area for days as authorities work to clean up the toxic scene, officials said.

Firefighters work at the scene of a high-pressure steam pipe explosion in New York City.
Firefighters work at the scene of a high-pressure steam pipe explosion in New York City. (Justin Lane / EPA-Shutterstock)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered a probe into any potential utility-related links.

“As the response continues, I am directing the Department of Public Service to conduct a full investigation into the cause of this explosion and determine whether any utility activities contributed to it,” Cuomo said in a statement.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio praised first responders for their swift work.

“Thank God no one was seriously injured,” de Blasio said, noting that because the blast happened early in the morning fewer people were on the streets.

“That was a helpful factor in a tough situation,” he said.

But explosions due to aging steam and gas lines have caused casualties over the years.

Three people were killed in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan in 1989 when an explosion sent debris rocketing into the air. In 2007, a steam pipe installed in 1924 exploded in Midtown Manhattan during rush hour. One person was killed and more than two dozen were injured.

More recently, a gas explosion in 2014 toppled two buildings in East Harlem, killing eight people and injuring 70 others. Families in the neighborhood were displaced from their homes for several weeks. A report by the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Con Edison for the blast.

A year later, in March 2015, a gas leak in Manhattan’s East Village led to a blast that killed two people and injured nearly 20 others. In 2016, New York Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance Jr. indicted five people, including a building owner, for the explosion.

A bystander takes photos of billowing steam from behind the line set up by firefighters.
A bystander takes photos of billowing steam from behind the line set up by firefighters. (Anthony DelMundo / TNS)

As a response to the gas explosions, de Blasio signed legislation that uses a multifaceted approach to increasing the safety of New York City's gas infrastructure.

Following the blast Thursday, officials said there were also manhole explosions from West 19th to West 21st streets. Some subway trains were bypassing the area and several streets were blocked off.

Many were just grateful that there were no casualties.

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"It was a pretty violent explosion," Daniel Lizio-Katzen told the Daily News. "The steam was shooting up into the air about 70 feet. It was pushing up at such a high pressure that it was spewing all of this dirt and debris. The cars around were coated in mud .... It left a huge crater in the middle of the street."

“A miracle no one was hurt from the steam pipe explosion,” New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted. “Thanks for the first responders and utility workers.”

Johnson posted a video that showed steam billowing into the air.

Casie Jordan, who works for Twitter in New York, posted video of steam rising up above the towering buildings.

Pedestrians held up camera phones to record the scene. A car honked its horn. And, as if it were just a normal morning, a man on a bicycle peddled past on Fifth Avenue.

2 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 7:20 a.m.

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