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The Nation

N.Y. Building Blast Injures 42

Explosion: Chemicals used by a sign company tenant are blamed. Early terrorism fears led to radiation testing.

April 26, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A massive explosion caused by volatile chemicals ripped through a Manhattan commercial building Thursday, scattering sheets of glass and debris on the streets below and injuring 42 people, 12 critically.

Officials said the blast, which badly damaged the facade of a 10-story structure in the Chelsea neighborhood, appeared to be an accident.

But in a sign of the times--with worries about terrorism--victims who were taken to hospitals were screened for exposure to radiation, just in case.

"There's no reason at this point to think there's anything suspicious about this explosion," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. "There were volatile chemicals in the basement of this building, [and] a sign company was using these chemicals."

The explosion, which rocked the busy commercial neighborhood, triggered mass evacuations of surrounding buildings and caused widespread alarm in the area, witnesses said.

More than 100 firefighters rushed to the building on West 19th Street, where investigators determined the blast originated in the basement near the boiler room. New York Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said the sign company, which some officials identified as Kaltech Co., recently received shipments of acetone in 50-gallon drums. But he did not say specifically what caused the blast.

"The company does etching and uses very volatile materials to do that etching," Scoppetta said. "We're still looking into possible links."

The late-morning blast rattled nerves in a neighborhood that is only a few miles from where the World Trade Center stood.

"At first we all thought the worst, this might be a terrorist thing, and nobody wants to go through that after 9/11," said Xanias Patterson, a shop teacher in an adjacent building that was quickly emptied after the explosion. "People were very scared, and the main goal was to get everybody outside as quickly as possible."

As police, fire and other emergency vehicles arrived, scores of dazed, injured people sat on the sidewalks--some bleeding profusely from head wounds and other injuries. Scores of evacuees stood nearby, gasping for air after running down stairwells to the streets.

"It was a giant boom . . . it sounded like an airplane crashing." said Bill Beek, who lives nearby.

The deafening blast, which shook the narrow block between 6th and 7th avenues, blew out office windows up and down the street and damaged scores of parked cars. As a driving rain fell, traffic was tied up for hours and power was cut off in the area at the Fire Department's request.

"You couldn't help but be scared, at least at first," said Peter Molina, who works in a building next to the sign company. "Especially since some of the people who were sitting on the street were badly hurt."

Six of those victims were taken to nearby St. Vincent's Hospital, where doctors said they had life-threatening burns and broken bones.

New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center treated eight patients, including four in critical but stable condition. At Cabrini Medical Center, doctors were treating three people with minor injuries; a fourth was in intensive care with chest pains. All those badly hurt had been standing outside the building when the explosion occurred, and some were hit by falling glass.

At Bellevue Hospital, four people were treated and released, and two others were kept for observation.

"Just when you think the city is beginning to calm down, this happens," said John Heffernen, who rushed out of a nearby actors' studio after the blast. "I guess everybody's still jumpy in New York."

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