A day after a gas explosion that ripped apart a bus depot and shot 40 foot flames into the air, Nancy Nieves, the director of the East Elmhurst day care center Kids R It, had one overwhelming thought: “Thank God we practice fire drills.”
Nieves, along with 14 children and four staff members, were evacuated from their 23rd Avenue day care Monday morning, moments after a former Triboro Coach Corp. building burst into flames at 85 01 24th Ave. The explosion was so loud Nieves initially thought their building was on fire.
“Some of the kids are still nervous and afraid to go to sleep today,” Nieves said Tuesday. “We saw the flames and the dark smoke walking away. It was a very awful experience.”
The mayhem began just before 11 a.m. when the two alarm fire was called. A fireball rocketed into the sky and smoke could be seen for miles. No serious injuries were reported; one man refused treatment at the scene for minor burns, officials said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology and the King’s Inn, a nearby homeless shelter, both on 23rd Avenue, were also evacuated Monday. LaGuardia Airport is immediately north of the area, but was reportedly unaffected by the explosion.
Two KeySpan workers had been removing compressed natural gas from tanks when the fire began, officials said. Jody Fisher, a spokesman for KeySpan, said there was “some sort of spark that lit the gas. Gas just doesn’t catch on fire by itself.”
The KeySpan workers were monitoring the gas removal, but were not standing next to the tanks when the explosion occurred, Fisher said. The gas was being fed into a 350 pound, high pressure line, which returns it to their distribution system.
Company officials were on the scene 15 to 20 minutes after the fire started and shut off the gas line at 11:42 a.m., Fisher said.
Assistant Fire Chief Robert Sweeney said the fire was under control in about an hour, but the small, brick building that served as a Triboro bus fueling area was destroyed, and a charred hulk was all that remained of a Metropolitan Transit Authority bus parked right next to the building.
Tim O’Brien, a spokesman for the MTA, said another 12 buses were damaged by Monday’s explosion. The authority took over the bus depot from Triboro on Feb. 20.
More than 200 MTA buses are stored on site, and many of them had to be moved during the fire. Both sides of Astoria Boulevard were lined with parked buses during the fire. “The bus drivers did a really good job,” O’Brien said.
Prior to the fire, the MTA had determined the compressed natural gas facility that Triboro maintained at the depot was not up to their safety and environmental standards, O’Brien said. MTA officials decided to decommission the facility and called KeySpan to remove the gas from the tanks.
As the fire roared, nearby residents streamed into the streets, especially as news helicopters hovered in the sky. Mary Hadges, who lives on the corner of Astoria Boulevard and 86th Street, where flames and smoke were easily visible from her front door, rushed outside to watch. Hadges didn’t hear the explosion, however, she saw it on TV.
It was the same for Edward Stasic, whose mother lives on 30th Avenue.He and many pedestrians flocked to Astoria Boulevard to see the commotion.
As for Nieves, she’s grateful that Grace Day Care Center, just a block away, was able to take her staff and children in for a few hours as they waited for the all clear. The Grace day care director even provided the children with lunch. “It’s not like the police would let (a) delivery come in,” Nieves said.