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Crews Prepare For Rain As Steam Pipe Cleanup Continues

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Cleanup efforts continued Friday after a massive steam pipe explosion in the Flatiron District.

The high-pressure pipe burst without warning just before 7 a.m. Thursday on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, ripping apart the pavement and sending plumes of white steam into the air.

Photos: Massive Steam Pipe Explosion In Manhattan's Flatiron District

"A huge white plume of smoke emerging from somewhere underground," said area employee Renee Lovett.

"Sounded like someone hosing down our window," said Daniela Caso. "It's scary and unsettling." 

Authorities testing the pipe, which was installed in 1932, confirmed asbestos in the area. Nearly 50 buildings were evacuated and decontamination tents were set up for first responders and those who live and work in the area.

"There's going to be a thorough assessment to make sure all the buildings are clean and safe," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

Late Friday afternoon, the city's Office of Emergency Management shared an update from the scene.

"As far as people walking around, the air is fine. Anything that we are concerned about now is debris that's either on the ground or on the buildings or on surfaces," Commissioner Joe Esposito said. "Asbestos is a killer. So we have to be very careful with how we clean the buildings, clean the streets, and that's what we're doing now." 

The city was also racing against the rain. Crews brought in hundreds of sandbags Friday to build a berm around the rupture.

"We want to contain as much of that contaminated debris as possible," said Esposito. "So that when the rain does come down, we can capture that contaminated water and then dispose of it."

Meanwhile barricades have been set up all over the area, so getting in or out is no easy task, and businesses remain closed until further notice.

"If many of them have to be closed for multiple days, that's a huge loss of business impacts," said Jennifer Brown with the Flatiron 23rd Street partnership.

For locals, it's beyond irritating.

"They're not letting me in. It's really frustrating," one man said.

"Extremely stressful, because my kids have special needs -- both of them. So I don't want to risk anything," said a woman.

Martha Roth was walking her dog when the pipe exploded, and she hasn't been able to go home since.

"A weekend wandering around the city," she said. "We do actually need our passports, because we're supposed to travel at the end of next week."

Others, like Monica Tettamanzi, were allowed to sleep at home Thursday night. But after leaving to run errands Friday morning, she couldn't get back in.

"It's a hot zone. It's very dangerous. Meanwhile, I was able to spend the night there, so I am very confused," she said.

Closures include the area between 23rd Street, Park Avenue South, 19th Street and Sixth Avenue. The M1, M2, M3 and M55 buses are being detoured to Seventh Avenue.

In addition, Con Edison had workers at 10 E. 15th Street inside the Clinton School to meet with displaced residents from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. They were also near 19th Street and Broadway and 22nd Street and Broadway until 8 p.m. to hand out claim forms and take in clothing worn by anyone who was in the area at the time of the blast.

They urged anyone who was within a block of Fifth Avenue and 21st Street Thursday around the time of the explosion to bag their clothes and bring the bag to one of the designated locations.

"This is a continuously evolving scene. So as time passes, we learn more. We know more buildings are being decontaminated, and more people are coming in to ask for information," said Desiree Ramos Reiner, of the American Red Cross.

Officials hope most people can return by Monday, but those displaced aren't sure how safe it will be, CBS2's Jessica Layton reported.

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