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BY JESSICA SCANLON | The cause of last week’s underground electrical fire that caused two manhole explosions still eludes authorities and residents, with some speculating that damage from Hurricane Sandy played a part.
The incident took place at the intersection of Greenwich Street and Reade Street in Tribeca at around 11 a.m. on Sat., Nov. 10. Consolidated Edison, in addition to the police and fire departments, urgently responded to the scene. Con Ed spokesman Alfonso Quiroz said the accident “could be” Sandy-related but would not provide a definitive cause.
Some city residents feared the worst when they heard the explosions from their homes and elsewhere in the vicinity. “Some customers, they thought it was like 9/11,” said Catherine Shi, a receptionist at YuYa Nails & Spa, who was working that day at the store’s Chambers Street location, just south of where the mishap took place.
The loud “boom” shook up some of the employees, too.
“We closed the store for a half day,” said Allen Yang, another YuYa employee.
The sound travelled northward as well. “You heard it in my apartment,” said Lisa Frank, who lives on Duane Street. “After the first one, there was smoke. We then heard it.”
Vendors and patrons of the Tribeca Greenmarket, which was close to the explosions, were also scared, but the fear quickly dissipated, according to one vendor. “One woman grabbed her keys and ran away,” recalled baker Oscar Peralta. “Some vendors ran away, too — three or four [of them]. After five minutes, everything was back to normal.”
Peralta said that, despite a seeming return to normalcy, he saw fewer customers in the hours after the incident — about 20 percent fewer than on a typical Saturday afternoon.
Across the street at the Tribeca branch of the New York Sports Club, approximately 50 patrons and employees were evacuated after carbon monoxide filled the gym. Nearby apartment buildings were also checked for the presence of the odorless yet fatal gas. “It’s not everyday day we get evacuated,” said Gladys Sherpa, a New York Sports Club employee. “Everybody got out. The carbon [monoxide] got high.”
“We had the fire department come in — about a dozen of them were checking carbon monoxide,” said Don Truby, the concierge at Reade House Condominium, a residential building situated down the street from the New York Sports Club and across the street from the Tribeca Greenmarket. He observed the area getting cordoned off with yellow tape in the moments after the incident.
According to the F.D.N.Y. spokesperson, several fire department units responded to the 11:13 a.m. call, doused two manholes to put out the electrical fire below ground and then measured the carbon monoxide levels throughout the entire block of Greenwich Street. The N.Y.P.D. responded to the same call and stayed through the entire incident to ensure the public’s safety. The police turned over its investigation to the F.D.N.Y. upon discovering no criminality.
The F.D.N.Y. spokesperson deferred inquiries about the cause of the explosions to Con Edison, and the utility company would only offer speculation as to what prompted them. “There’s a tremendous amount of electricity in the ground,” said Quiroz. “From time to time, this happens.”
Greenwich Street is divided between zones A and B in the city’s hurricane evacuation zone codes — designations assigned by the New York City Office of Emergency Management based on flooding risk. During Hurricane Sandy, the west side of the street had a mandatory evacuation order, while the east side had no evacuation order. Power went out on both sides of the street the day of the storm and for several days thereafter. A handful of buildings in North Tribeca are still without power due to damage caused by flooding.
Some locals were convinced that Sandy played a role in the accident. “It’s because of the hurricane and the flooding,” said Shamel Seruby, a New York Sports Club employee.
But the definitive cause of the electrical fire and explosions will not be known until Con Ed examines the wires and other equipment it recovered from the scene at its facility in the Bronx.