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Basement Blast Injures Dozens and Shatters a Block in NYC


April 26, 2002
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Basement Blast Injures Dozens and Shatters a Block in NYC

by Robert D. McFadden, New York Times

An explosion in the bowels of a century-old industrial loft building shook a block in Chelsea like an earthquake yesterday, shattering walls, windows, offices and elevator shafts and injuring dozens, 12 critically, in a wind of flying debris and glass that evoked fears of a terrorist bombing.

The blast erupted shortly before 11:30 a.m. in a basement where chemicals were stored and used under the 11-story building at 111-121 West 19th Street, between the Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue, city officials said. The force blew a hole in the facade, rushed up stairwells and shafts, ripped doors off hinges and sent bricks and window shards cascading onto the street.

Witnesses told of a rumbling explosion that shook the building and ground, a black cloud of smoke that engulfed the block, and dazed and bleeding victims stumbling out into the rubble as firefighters from a station across the street rushed out and a small army of emergency vehicles wailed to the scene.

About 75 people were evacuated or found their own way out of the building's warren of lofts and offices — a collection of light industries, importers, dot-coms, printers and other enterprises. Hundreds of others, including many students from a nearby technical school, were removed from commercial buildings where windows had been blown in.

Officials said that at least 42 people were injured, suffering broken bones, burns, severe gashes and trauma. They were taken to four Manhattan hospitals, where at least 10 — most of whom had been in or near the basement explosion — were still listed in critical condition last night, most with head wounds.

To many workers and residents of Chelsea, the events that broke upon a rainy workday were fearfully reminiscent of Sept. 11, or of the recent terror wrought by suicide bombers in Israel. It was "Take Your Daughter to Work Day," and many in the building and the neighborhood had children or young teenagers in tow.

But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and fire officials quickly ruled out any act of terrorism and said that the cause, while still under investigation, appeared to be traceable to recently delivered volatile chemicals owned by a tenant, Kaltech Industries Group, a sign manufacturing company that occupied three floors.

"There's absolutely no reason to think this is anything other than a tragic accident," the mayor said at the Seventh Battalion firehouse, looking out on a street strewn with cinder blocks, bricks, glass and the twisted wreckage of a sidewalk coffee cart. Curtains fluttered out shattered windows.

Investigators who insisted on anonymity were more specific. They said the explosion might have been touched off by workers in the basement who were transferring chemicals used for etching from a leaky 55-gallon drum to another container. "They were using an electric pump," one said, "and they believe one container starts swelling, and they fled and then they heard the explosion."

Another official, while stressing that the investigation was still early, said some chemical reaction might have occurred during the transfer process. "There was a leaking or a hissing, as if the hose broke or ruptured or something like it's going to blow," the official said. "They're looking at whether a chemical reaction may have produced some vapors that were ignited. That's where they're leaning now."

Fire marshals and hazardous-materials investigators for the State Department of Environmental Conservation were trying to determine what chemicals were stored at the site. Kaltech was cited yesterday afternoon for four violations of the fire code, including improper storage of chemicals, fire officials said. A contractor who works at the building said he had often seen what he called volatile chemicals in an inadequately ventilated basement.

J. R. Khalfan, one of two brothers who own Kaltech and is a company director, said he did not believe the chemicals were a cause of the explosion. While noting that he had not yet had access to the basement, he suggested that a boiler had exploded or that natural gas was involved.

He said some witnesses described two distinct booms. "We think it was the side boiler because of the double explosion," Mr. Khalfan said. "It could be natural gas."

Asked about early reports that a boiler had exploded, Mayor Bloomberg said that there had been recent work done on some boilers in the building. "But these boilers have not been active for many years," he said, adding: "This certainly was not a boiler explosion."

Mr. Khalfan said the basement used by Kaltech contained about 20 machines for making signs — cutters, silk-screening devices, acid etchers and other mechanisms — but he said none were welding machines. He said that paint was kept in the basement, but insisted that it was nonflammable.

Kaltech's general manager, Phil Morgan, who was in the ground-floor office, said he felt two consecutive blasts. "One pushed me up from my chair, the second had me out of my chair," he told The Associated Press. When it was over, the ceiling and wall had fallen. "Everything moved. The air was filled with dust."

It was unclear late yesterday how many workers were in the basement, with reports ranging from 10 to 50, mostly immigrants who were making signs or silk screens, etching glass and performing other tasks, officials said. Francis X. Gribbon, a Fire Department spokesman, said marshals were interviewing witnesses and the injured, as well as officials of the building's management.

Chaitram Singh, a Kaltech Industries employee who was in the basement, remembered little except a blinding flash and an overwhelming force. "All I saw was dust and an explosion and I was out," he said, his left eye covered with a bandage.

While the facade was damaged and several walls were blown out, the building appeared to be structurally sound, city officials said after an inspection. The tan brick structure, with airily wide loft windows, white stone trim and a row of lion-head cartouches, was designed in 1902 by William H. Hume for Simpson, Crawford & Simpson, a big store that was part of the Ladies Mile.

Many witnesses said their first thoughts on hearing the explosion were of terrorists. "All I thought was `Oh God, 9/11,' " said David Santiago, who works in a hardware store across the street. He said he ran out and saw victims stumbling toward him. "They were all in a daze," he said. "Some were cut in the head."

The explosion occurred under the east side of the 100-foot-wide building, and did most of its damage there. No one was trapped in the basement, officials said, although ceilings and walls in the area surrounding the blast partly collapsed. The upward force also damaged three elevator shafts and various stairwells, offices and interior walls as well as shattering scores of windows. Chad Dougatz, a writer-editor for Launch, a Yahoo subsidiary, was in a second-floor office at the west end of the building. He said the blast, traveling up a freight elevator shaft, blew two heavy metal elevator doors off their hinges and across a 15-foot reception area. He and 17 other workers were briefly trapped by debris and evacuated out a window on a cherry picker.

John Offermann, 47, an executive of Donovan Data Systems on West 18th Street, had taken his daughter, Karen, 11, to work with him, as eight others in his office did. The children, he said, "were very frightened, obviously," but no one panicked.

The explosion prevented mail delivery in the area for the day, and there were other effects, including a minor crisis for the producers of the Broadway revival of "Into the Woods." Several of the show's costumes, taken in for alterations and cleaning, were left behind in the evacuation of a sixth floor shop. Rehearsal costumes were substituted, a show spokesman said. The timing was terrible, because critics and Tony Award nominators attended last night's performance.





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