Andrew Fine assumed lightning struck when he heard an explosion outside his Manhattan apartment on a recent Friday night.
But after one of his kids told him to look out their window, seeing “a car completely engulfed in flames,” he heard two more loud booms — and soon discovered that manholes were erupting beneath two cars parked on the block.
“We were freaked out,” Fine, 54, a longtime resident of the Upper East Side and vice president of the East 86th Street Association, said of the Feb. 4 blasts.
On the street, he said, the explosions set off car alarms and blew up the brick sidewalk as flames torched the two cars.
“It’s definitely scary,” Fine said. “It’s totally random. But it’s amazing when that randomness hits so close to home.”
The scene was far from unusual.
Manhole fires and explosions have presented a public safety hazard in this city since the early 20th century. THE CITY documented the phenomenon in Feb. 2020 — and the numbers have only risen since then.
The latest Mayor’s Management Report tied a 31% increase in “non-structural fires” from 2020 to 2021 to a surge in emergency manhole incidents over the same period.
“The rise in non-structural fires is attributed to a rise in manhole fires which more than doubled from 2,587 in Fiscal 2020 to 6,104 in Fiscal 2021,” the report highlighted.
And the number of “blown cover” events — meaning a manhole top dislodged by the force of an explosion — reached 281 in the fiscal year 2021, which runs through June, according to data from the Fire Department, up from 134 in the previous year.
As THE CITY reported two years ago, manhole fires and explosions have caused significant property damage, building evacuations, power outages and traffic disruptions over the last decade. They have also led to dozens of injuries — and even death.
A Salt Problem
Manhole fires and explosions are mostly a winter phenomenon. They occur most frequently in January, February and March, FDNY’s data shows.
Combustion happens when underground electrical equipment — especially old wiring — mixes with rain, snow and corrosive salt that’s spread to reduce ice on roads. Pressure built up by smoke and gases from smoldering wires can eventually send covers flying.
Department of Sanitation trucks poured 454,443 tons of salt on roadways in the last fiscal year, according to spokesperson Vincent Gragnani.
“Salt is our first line of defense against snow accumulation and the formation of ice,” he said, adding that the department has experimented with brine as an alternative to dry salt since 2019.
“We are committed to using all the tools at our disposal to ensure safe streets for all who need to use them during and after a winter storm, and to get our city moving after a storm,” Gragnani said.
Asked about the role of salt in manhole incidents, he referred THE CITY to Con Edison, which is responsible for about 246,000 manholes and service boxes as the only significant provider of electricity in the five boroughs.
A spokesperson for Con Ed said that salt is a “major” contributing factor to manhole fires and explosions but noted the company has taken several measures to increase manhole safety.
Those include installing sensors to detect heat and gas buildup and taking infrared photos of cables to identify hot spots in need of service, according to the spokesperson, Allan Drury.
He added that Con Ed has been replacing solid manhole covers with ventilated ones, allowing heat and gas to escape instead of buildup. In addition, some newer manholes contain latches to prevent covers from flying off in an explosion.
During the pandemic, Drury noted, the company gained the ability to snap infrared photos through ventilated covers without taking them off.
“That makes the inspections faster, easier and safer,” he said.
But even with numerous safety precautions in place, manhole explosions still occur. Drury did not answer specific questions about the increase in fires and explosions.
As THE CITY previously reported, Con Ed employs a small army of lawyers and regularly fights off injury lawsuits related to manhole explosions. The cases often take years to resolve.
More Oversight Underground
Local politicians have unsuccessfully tried to tamp down the manhole problem.
In 2015 and 2018, then-City Councilmember Donovan Richards sponsored a bill that would require the FDNY to submit reports on manhole incidents to the City Council.
But the bill didn’t gain enough support to become law in either attempt, and officials don’t have much good data on the potentially deadly phenomenon.
Now Queens borough president, Richards said he still worries about manhole incidents, noting recent issues in Astoria and Ridgewood.
He said serious injury or death is inevitable because of “the lack of oversight and transparency and infrastructure investment.”
“Is it gonna take somebody getting killed for them to get serious about this?” he told THE CITY.
He said the focus should not be on issuing fines but on protecting life.
“It’s about ensuring that people can walk up and down the street and drive through this city, without having to dodge that,” Richards said.
The most recent fatal manhole incident in the city took place in October 2008. George Dillman, a cable splicer with Con Edison, was doing maintenance work in a Brooklyn manhole when an electrical current set it on fire.
It took more than two hours to retrieve the man, as crews struggled to shut off the power, according to a Con Edison report.
A longtime critic of the utility, state Senator John Liu (D-Queens), told THE CITY it’s hard to conceive that manhole incidents persist in 2022.
“I want the public utility to contemplate the consequences of these explosions more than just the cost of doing business,” Lui said.
In 2006, Liu, then a member of the City Council, introduced a bill that would allow the city to fine utilities up to $5,000 per manhole deemed unsafe after a city inspection.
But that also failed to pass.
While Liu continues to look for legislative solutions, he said the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies, should also be involved.
The PSC has been criticized for being weak on utility companies, but Liu said that the commission appears to have changed its tune under the Hochul administration.
“I’ll give them some time to be more proactive,” he said.
A PSC spokesperson said the state commission has “rigorous electricity safety standards” for utility companies, and noted Con Edison submits interim and annual reports on the performance of manholes.
“Staff continues to work with Con Edison in the research and development of manhole mitigation strategies as well as ensuring that Con Edison performs the required inspection and maintenance of its electrical system to prevent these incidents,” the PSC’s James Denn added.
Fine, whose block was rattled by the explosions earlier this month, said that after living in the city for nearly five decades he was well aware of the problem but had never experienced it.
“It’s just alarming when it happens at your doorstep,” he said.