Chelsea Blast Evokes 9/11 Fears

12 people remain critically injured from an explosion that took place in a 10-story commercial building on West 19th Street. At least 40 people were injured. Fire officials say the explosion took place in the building's basement. They're still not sure what caused it, but they say they're investigating whether volatile chemcals, stored in the basement by a sign company, may have caused the blast. The explosion happened at around 11:30 yesterday morning, in Chelsea, a neighborhood of residences, trendy shops, and light manufacturing companies. WNYC's Amy Eddings reports.

Rob Blitzer works for a software company in the building across the street from the building where the explosion occurred at 121 West 19th Street. He says he was talking to a client at the time of the blast.

Blitzer: And I said, hold on a second. I looked out my office, and saw a bunch of people running. It sounded like either scaffolding had come down or an explosion, or, who knows what it was. But I think, we all, post 9/11, we all…run.

Blitzer took refuge with others in the café of Bed, Bath and Beyond, on West 19th and Sixth Avenue. Sheryll Bellman had been one block away, on West 18th Street, when the explosion occurred. She said she thought it was a bomb, and it sounded like it had come from the building she was standing in front of, so she, too, ducked into the nearby café.

Bellman: and um, I'm just so shaken up, and I didn't want, I didn't want to go anywhere until I calmed down.
Eddings: So what was your first thought, when you heard the bang…
Bellman: Well, what do YOU think?

From the café, a half a block away from the building, Bellman and others had a good view of the rescue scene. Shards of glass and chunks of concrete littered the street. Inside the building, Fire Liutenant Reed Jantz, with Ladder Three, says he saw debris, twisted steel, and a partially collapsed elevator shaft. He helped rescue several people from the elevator, which was trapped between the 2nd and 3rd floors.

Jantz: The elevator car was between floors, and we had access from the top. So we forced the door above, and dropped our guys down. The people we dealt with were pretty much in a state of shock, more than anything else.

Fire officials were cautious not to say what caused the explosion, until their investigation was complete. At a news conference held at a fire house a few doors down from the explosion, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that some causes HAD been ruled out. One was a boiler explosion, which had been reported earlier. The other was terrorism.

Bloomberg: The thing I want to assure everybody is, there's absolutely no reason to think that this is anything other than a tragic accident.

The injured were taken to four hospitals, where officials say some of the critically injured suffered from severe head traumas, a badly broken leg and ruptured leg artery, and burns. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings.