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Fifth Avenue Explosion Tests Management Company

Bill Morris in Building Operations on July 26, 2018

Flatiron District, Manhattan

Fifth Avenue Explosion

The scene of the steam pipe explosion on Fifth Avenue (images courtesy of Con Ed).

July 26, 2018

Shortly after dawn on July 19, Fifth Avenue exploded. A Con Ed steam pipe burst beneath the pavement at the corner of 21st Street, for reasons still unknown, and showered the surrounding area with steam, shattered concrete, muck, and asbestos. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, but more than 500 people had to be evacuated from their homes and businesses in 45 buildings near the iconic Flatiron building. 

As managers of a dozen buildings in the neighborhood, many of them co-ops, the team at the Andrews Organization knew they had to act swiftly and decisively. “The key thing here was to communicate,” says Divya Rashad, executive vice president at Andrews. “We went ahead with email blasts to our shareholders.” 

“We told them to take preventive measures – to turn off all air-conditioning units and close windows,” adds Afrim Pocesta, the company’s director of capital projects management. “This comes from our experience with Hurricane Sandy, terrorist attacks, and accidents.” 

With that initial hurdle cleared, the management team notified its insurance carriers and its environmental consultant, J.S. Held, and then headed to the scene. “We were onsite within a couple of hours, setting up a command center at the corner of 18th Street and Fifth Avenue,” Rashad continues. “Sorting out the information was one of the bigger challenges, but Con Ed walked us through the process of contacting city agencies. We were wearing haz-mat suits, and by Friday afternoon, the city started opening up certain evacuated buildings. We were able to go in and do our environmental testing.” 

Fire department personnel had gone into buildings to retrieve pets and medication for residents. After the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) determined that more than a dozen buildings had been contaminated with asbestos debris, crews began power-washing rooftops and facades, then collecting the runoff for decontamination. Buildings with contaminated interiors would be reopened only after they were cleaned and certified safe by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). 

Today, a week after the disaster, three of the Andrews Organization’s buildings remain off-limits. “About 100 people are still not able to return to their homes,” Pocesta reported after visiting the buildings Thursday morning. Representatives from DEP conducted walk-throughs accompanied by property managers, supers, and technicians from J.S. Held, who will clean contaminated apartments starting Friday. The clean-up is expected to take from two to four days. A total of 10 buildings will require cleaning before occupants can return, according to the mayor’s office and the OEM. 

Rashad describes a management company’s response to such an emergency as “a huge collaborative effort” – between managers, shareholders, energy consultants, Con Ed, the police and fire departments, and other city agencies. 

“Having gone through incidents in the past,” Pocesta says, “we know it’s important to have experienced boots on the ground. The main thing is that people want to know what’s going on with their homes. I believe we over-communicated, but that’s not a bad thing.”

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