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
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
"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
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
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
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