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There are still steam pipes that power NYC. And one just exploded

A steam explosion in Manhattan's Flatiron District is a reminder of the steam system that still heats and cools the city.
AP Photo/Richard Drew
The explosion in Manhattan’s Flatiron District is a reminder of the system under the city.
By Zoë Schlanger
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A steam pipe exploded as the work day began in New York City today (July 19), opening a hole in the busy Flatiron District of Manhattan and sending steam spewing several stories into the sky.

The blast came at 6:30am, and the steam was still rising from the site at time of publishing. No serious injuries have been reported.

“The steam turned white, then gray, then black and continued to alternate colors, indicating the possible presence of a fire underneath the ground,” NBC New York 4 reported, though there has not been confirmation of a fire.


Because many of the city’s steam pipes were laid decades or as much as a century ago, officials are concerned that the exploded pipe might have been coated in asbestos, as was common before it was banned as a construction material in the 1970s. People in the neighborhood of the explosion were waiting in line to be “hosed down” according to WCBS Newsradio 880 reporter Alex Silverman:

New York City is home to the largest steam-power system in the world, first set up in the 1880s. Beneath the streets, 105 miles of pipes snake from five steam generating plants to 2,000 of the city’s buildings, providing heating and cooling. Restaurants and hospitals use that same steam to disinfect things. In the winter, when demand for steam heat is highest, 10 million pounds of steam move through the system per hour, according to Con Edison, the city’s electricity and steam utility.

The last big New York steam explosion was 11 years go, on July 18, 2007 near Grand Central Terminal, one of the  city’s main commuter hubs. Steam escaping from an 83-year-old pipe shot debris “40 stories in the air, raining mud on midtown,” according to NBC New York 4. That blast killed one person and injured dozens.

The force of the 2007 explosion flipped over a tow truck and opened a hole in the middle of the street that stretched as much as 40 feet across, according to the New York Times.

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