The initial explosion, which occurred in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, came at 6:39 a.m., quickly causing street closings and serious rush-hour traffic problems.
It was not immediately determined what caused the blast in the 20-inch (50-cm) pipe.
People in the vicinity of the explosion who may have been covered in the steam are advised to bag and wash their clothing.
Thursday's blast dispersed asbestos into the air and led to the temporary evacuation of 49 buildings. The utility also promised to reimburse people for the clothes they lost and provide financial assistance to cover the costs of finding a place to stay during the cleanup. "Now that we know there's asbestos present, we're not going to cut any corners".
"Like so much of our infrastructure in NY, the steam infrastructure is getting older and needs to be upgraded", said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of New York's Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan policy organization. The city is setting up a command post at Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.
"The work necessary to go in and abate all of the steam pipes would be astronomical", said John-Patrick Curran, a NY environmental attorney. On the subways, R and W trains are bypassing 23 St in both directions because of FDNY activity on 5 Av and 21 St. FDNY is now operating at a third alarm.
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The fire department confirmed the possibility of asbestos being released in the explosion. A pipe that blew up during an evening commute in July 2007 sent a 40-foot-high geyser of scalding, brownish steam over a busy midtown Manhattan intersection.
Asbestos is used to insulate steam pipes and prevent temperature shocks, said Rae Zimmerman, a public administration professor at New York University.
Con Edison spokesman Alfonso Quiroz said that crews will go into the hole to examine the pipe after the cleanup.
The location on lower Fifth Avenue is about two blocks from where a major water main ruptured in January 1998, which caused a massive sinkhole and then a gas line to burst, spewing fire into the air. City busses were also being detoured.
More than 100 miles of steam pipe run beneath Manhattan, delivering vapor that powers heating and cooling systems, among other functions, in thousands of buildings.
Multiples streets were closed in the area including a stretch of Fifth Avenue.