Monday, December 3, 2012

When it Rains it Pours: Electrical Fire at 55 Water St

At least 27 people were treated for smoke inhalation outside a downtown office tower after a fire broke out early Friday morning in the storm-struck basement of 55 Water Street. The imposing 53-story tower, which is still without power and operating on generators, is home to city agencies and many Fortune-500 companies. A short in a feeder cable, which was re-energized after electrical repair work related to Hurricane Sandy - not temporary generators -sparked the fire, according to fire officials.

Clinging to the eastern edge of southern Manhattan, 55 Water Street is among dozens of downtown buildings still struggling to return to normal after surging waters from Hurricane Sandy ripped through basements and lower floors, knocking out vital systems. Many remain reliant on power from generators, which groan loudly on surrounding streets and create what can appear from the outside to be a complicated web of wires.

However, it was electrical work, not a mishap connected to a temporary power generator, which sparked the fire, the department said.

“The fire at 55 Water Street was caused by a short in a feeder cable, which was re-energized this morning as part of repair work to electrical cables damaged during the storm,” said Frank Dwyer, a Fire Department spokesman.

“The problems were on the customer side,” said a Con Ed spokesman, referring to the electrical lines inside of a building that do not belong to the utility. In the aftermath of the storm, utilities in the region have had to wait to turn the power back on in damaged homes and businesses until the electrical wiring inside is repaired by the individual owners. “They have to be ready to accept our services.”

The office tower at 55 Water Street has four Con Edison lines running into it, two of which had been previously energized without incident. Neither of the two other service lines was energized by Con Edison on Friday, though workers from the utility were doing work there on the south side of the tower. The fire occurred on the Water Street side of the building.

More than 80 firefighters responded to the fire, which erupted around 9:30 a.m. At least one firefighter was among the 27 treated at the scene; four of those were taken to New York Downtown Hospital for further evaluation. After the fire was under control, firefighters conducted checks of generators around the area to ensure they are being used safely.

When completed in 1972, 55 Water Street was the largest office building in the world, and at nearly 4 million square feet t, is still the largest in New York City. The massive structure was built on a superblock created from four adjoining city blocks, cutting off the western part of Front Street.  The building - which is home to city agencies and large private companies, including the Department of Transportation and Standard & Poor’s - was among many along the Lower Manhattan waterfront that sustained damage related to Hurricane Sandy when more than 32 million gallons of seawater flooded three underground levels and causing water to rise six feet high in the lobby.

Slow Lower Manhattan Revival

The latest blow to 55 Water Street is symbolic of the difficulties lying ahead of the Lower Manhattan. Much time is expected to pass before a substantial recovery is completed in the region. After a month from Hurricane Sandy, some high-rises have reemerged quickly while other buildings remain eerily dark and vacant.

Numerous Lower Manhattan landlords have told tenants that full power won’t be back for weeks, and in some cases, months, causing displaced businesses and residents to be uncertain of their return.

After Sandy, the city’s Buildings Department declared nine buildings in lower Manhattan to be unsafe because of structural damage from the storm, while Con Edison has restored electricity and steam power “access” to all buildings.

Yet 49 of the 183 office buildings in the Financial District were closed because of mechanical failures. By the latest count, at only 50% of these buildings were back in full operation, even if relying upon temporary power.