Just another weekday explosion in New York City

It was a quiet Wednesday night and we had just managed to put our girls to bed when we heard and felt an explosion. Even though it had been raining, there was no way that this was thunder. The explosion was quickly followed by a burning smell. We looked out our windows but did not see anything. The burning smell persisted.

A few short minutes later a legion of emergency vehicles arrived. Fire engines and police cars with screaming sirens and lights ablaze rushed down Union Street. The fire trucks positioned themselves near our building as police cars rushed passed them to block off traffic coming in both directions. The problem seemed to be coming from across the street, but we couldn’t tell what had happened. Was there a burning vehicle? Did someone detonate a car bomb in our neighborhood? Was there a meth lab in someone’s apartment that caught fire and now toxic chemicals are in the air?

I decided to investigate, taking a basement exit in case police were blocking off the front entrance of our building. When I got to the front of my building there were many people on the street already there to bear witness to the events. I noticed smoke coming from an open manhole on the street. A firefighter was connecting a hose to the fire hydrant nearest our building. The hose led across the street.

I encountered a Spanish-speaking man who was standing near my building. I asked him what was going on. In thickly accented English he told me that he saw flames coming from a building across the street and he had called 911. He didn’t know what had happened but he saw flames and smoke coming from a manhole and a building. A South Asian woman wrapped in a traditional sari came by and spoke with us. She mentioned that she had been saying her prayers when she heard the explosion; the burning smell had driven her from her apartment to investigate.

After chatting with these neighbors I headed across the street where there more people gathered. One of the buildings was completely dark and it was towards there that the firefighters were all streaming. Police officers and fire officials talked to one another as more FDNY personnel arrived. A few more fire department vehicles showed up. A Q44 bus found itself trapped, hemmed in by first responders on both sides. Its driver stood outside the bus talking into a cell phone before signing off and standing there resignedly.

As I stood watching, a friend, J. Dip, approached me. He lives across the street. I know him through music: he plays guitar for New York hardcore stalwarts Bloodbeat. He lives in a building next to the affected one and told me that he heard and felt the blast and saw flames coming from the basement windows of the next building as well. He told his wife to be ready to move their kids out of their quickly and he went to investigate. We talked about other things: how we were doing and what our lives were up to. He and his wife are expecting a third child in November. We are both still playing music, but life slows down a bit when you have kids.

Another bystander said that it was likely an electrical fire and explosion caused by corroded wiring. He explained that with the large quantities of salt put on New York City roads during the winter months, some salt seeps underground and corrodes utility cables there. When it rains later in the year, water can touch those exposed wires and cause fires and explosions.

That seemed like the most plausible explanation, and the firemen were not evacuating any buildings, so my adventure was done. Con Ed trucks were already pulling up to start fixing things as I walked back across the street for home.

This was some excitement that one might think would make it onto the television news or merit a mention in a newspaper, but nothing doing. There were no fatalities or grisly injuries. “If it doesn’t bleed, there’s no need,” would be the appropriate adage for lack of news coverage.

So no big deal, just another explosion in New York. We live in one of the largest cities in the world and the infrastructure is always being revised. Sometimes by tragedy or accident, sometimes by design, New York always reinvents itself. As long as this metropolis stands, its story will be one of grinding, sweat and broken concrete, of taped-off work zones and slap-dash detours. We’ll face them all down, one odd weekday explosion at a time.

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