Volume 75, Number 12 | August 10 - 16, 2005

Villager photos by Clayton Patterson

Hot weather caused a transformer on E. Third St. and Avenue B to blow last Wednesday, sending flames shooting up the side of 199 E. Third St.

Con Edison explosion scorches apartment building

By Jefferson Siegel

On Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 3, an underground Con Edison transformer at Third St. and Avenue B exploded, sending two people to the hospital and leaving several families homeless. Significant damage was done to 199 E. Third St., a six-story apartment building.

The explosion followed several days of high heat and humidity, with the temperature reaching a record high of 97 on that Wednesday.

Two Con Ed workers on the scene at the time of the blast were taken to Bellevue Hospital with minor injuries and released later that evening. Two pedestrians were reported to have suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene.

The six-story apartment building adjacent to the blast suffered extensive damage to the lower floors, including extensive damage to the China Wok restaurant. Another restaurant next door, Mama’s Food Shop, also suffered serious damage and repairs were expected to take up to a week.

The building was evacuated for several hours, but by late in the evening, half of the occupants were allowed to return. Of the 10 apartments in the building, four sustained serious damage and were determined to be uninhabitable. A family of seven Chinese residents, including a pregnant woman, and two people from another apartment, were temporarily relocated to the Embassy Suites Hotel in Battery Park City. The residents of a third apartment left to stay with friends; occupants of the fourth apartment were reported to be in Las Vegas.

Last Wednesday, power demand was unusually high as air conditioners beat back heat and humidity throughout the city. At the Con Ed Avenue A substation, which serves the Lower East Side, two of 24 feeder cables were temporarily out of service. In the late afternoon, a remote sensor notifed Con Ed headquarters that an underground transformer at Third St. near Avenue B was overheating. A team was dispatched to hose it down in an attempt to cool it off.

“Putting water on a transformer to cool it off in this kind of weather under a heavy load condition is a common practice,” said Joe Petta, a Con Ed spokesperson.

At about 5:30 p.m., as the two-person team poured water down the street grate, the transformer exploded, shattering windows several floors up, and scorching the building’s exterior and lower-floor apartments.

Third St. resident John Penley, who lives nearby, said someone who was “walking by when it blew up, singed his face, the heat was so bad and he had to run down the block.”

At Mama’s Food Shop near the corner, the employees, “thought it was terrorists; they weren’t sure what it was,” according to Michael Rosen, the store’s owner. “Everything burned in the basement was thrown away. Our restaurant was filled with smoke and soot, so it will have to be cleaned and repainted,” he said.

Around the corner, at Caffe Raka on Avenue B, Ebraheem was behind the counter when the transformer blew. “I heard a boom, a loud boom,” he said. “I went outside, saw the Chinese restaurant, a lot of fire and fire went up the building.”

Seeing the burning Chinese restaurant, he said, “I closed and went outside. In one minute police came. I closed for the day.”

Walter Quinones has been the building manager of 199 E. Third St. for 30 years. He was home on the second floor when, “I heard a ‘boom’ sound. It blew up and fire shot up to the fifth floor.” He said damage to the two apartments closest to the explosion was limited to the kitchens and hallways. Stairwell windows were also blown out on several floors. The doors to apartments 1A and 2A had been forced open by firefighters and the outside doorframes showed signs of scorching from within.

Several people on the street said emergency services arrived immediately. The intersection was closed to traffic and a “hot zone” was roped off around the area of the grate. Con Ed said preliminary testing did not reveal the presence of P.C.B.’s, asbestos or any other toxins. Further tests are planned.

Alison Goodman lives in the building next door. When she arrived home in the early evening, she “saw the street blocked off and all this chaos.” Rushing home to check on her dog and cat, she found them undisturbed and the power still on.

At 8 p.m., a third feeder cable to the neighborhood shorted out. Con Ed is unsure if this was a result of the transformer explosion. “The way the system is designed, what they call a ‘second contingency design’ enables us to take any two pieces [cables] out of equipment and still enable us to run the rest of the network at a full 100 percent load on the hottest day of the year,” Con Ed’s Petta explained. However, with three of 24 cables now out of service, the system was beginning to heat up, so an 8 percent voltage reduction was put into effect for the Lower East Side. The reduction lasted into the early morning hours.

By Wednesday evening, Con Ed, the Police Department, Office of Emergency Management and Department of Environmental Protection and the Red Cross were on scene and coordinating efforts. Lieutenant Culkin of the Ninth Precinct was deploying officers for traffic control. In the middle of the cordoned-off intersection, Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, was arranging with the Red Cross for a Mandarin translator to assist the Chinese family of seven that was being relocated Downtown. Stetzer said the family was put up in the ritzy Battery Park City hotel because vacancies could not be found at lower-priced hotels.

“The response was very quick,” said Jared Bernstein of O.E.M., standing near the Con Ed command table across from the building. “Within four to five minutes, the Fire Department was here and Con Ed had a very timely response.”

One apartment suffered some structural damage.

“A ceiling in the apartment collapsed,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings reported the next day, “and pulled away from the floor joists. The structural stability of the building was not affected.” She said the damage was entirely a result of the force of the explosion and that a “temporary vacate” order would remain in effect for the four damaged apartments until the owner filed an application for a permit to begin repairs.

Rosen of Mama’s Food Shop said several of the building’s businesses are talking with a lawyer. “I just want my store open and money for what was damaged and [for] lost business,” he explained.

Rosen also has environmental concerns. He said he was told “because the transformer was 70-years-old-plus that there were P.C.B’s. I questioned Con Edison about that and they said that the levels were below anything that needed to be reported.”

On Saturday afternoon, Swan Cleaners was open for business as usual. Except for the burned-out China Wok and several floors of boarded-up windows, the neighborhood almost seemed back to normal. “The only thing that’s left to do,” building manager Quinones said, “is get the guys to do the construction work.”

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