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Fire Destroys Garden Center Under Metro-North Tracks In East Harlem; Service Halted

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Service was suspended into and out of Grand Central station on the Metro-North Railroad Tuesday evening after an extra-alarm fire broke out in a garden center beneath the elevated train tracks in East Harlem.

The elevated trestle was damaged in the blaze and late Tuesday night, engineers determined the trestle had to be shored up to reinforce the damaged steel.

Metro-North trains are expected to run on a Saturday schedule on Wednesday morning, and will only operate as far south as the Bronx. Customers looking to travel in Manhattan will need to switch to the subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.

The Urban Garden Center, which is housed in two construction trailers, caught fire under the Metro-North tracks at 119th Street and Park Avenue at 6:42 p.m., the FDNY said. The fire started between the trailers, and was raised to a second alarm at 7 p.m.

PHOTOS: Fire Under Metro-North Tracks In East Harlem

"I opened my window to climb down on my fire escape, and the smoke started getting more heavier," said Antone Rosas of East Harlem.

Tom Jones said he saw it all happen.

"Like a loud explosion; like a big bomb," he said.

Jones said the fire started from the train trellis above.

"I saw the sparks, and I don't know if it was train sparks, or just something dropping below, but after the sparks, there was a loud explosion," he said.

FDNY Chief of Department James Leonard said in a news conference that firefighters had to evacuate numerous buildings, and 10 cars were also damaged.

Service into and out of Grand Central Terminal was halted indefinitely on all three Metro-North lines – Harlem, Hudson and New Haven – due to the fire, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

CHECK: Metro-North Updates

As late as 10 p.m., fire crews were still extinguishing hot spots.

Photos from the scene showed bright orange flames raging under the tracks, and smoke billowing the entire trestle.

Metro-North Fire
A fire broke out in two construction trailers under the Metro-North Railroad tracks in East Harlem on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (Credit: Ben Parkin, via Twitter)

Instagram video showed a northbound train going right through the smoke as the fire raged, CBS2's Brian Conybeare reported. It was soon afterward when service was shut down.

The garden center that caught fire had a lot of trees, plants and wood inside, and a witness told CBS2's Conybeare that all of the plants and trees suddenly went up in flames.

The fire could be seen for miles and miles around with the thick black smoke billowing into the air.

Witness Jeb told 1010 WINS' Al Jones he was worried about the trains.

"Nobody stopped it. The flames were going on, and nobody stopped it. The trains were going on, and we were so scared for the trains, because we don't know what's happening up there on the tracks," he said.

Leonard said there were explosions when the fire broke out. He said there was propane in the garden center, and some bolts popped out of the steel.

At the scene, Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained the damage sustained to the train trellis.

"The fire was so hot that they could hear the rivets; the bolts popping," Cuomo said at the scene as he held a charred bolt in his hands. "This is an example of a bolt that popped, so it's obvious that there was a certain amount of shifting of the steel."

How much damage the trestle sustained was not clear.

"Steel can get damaged fairly easy, but how much damage and how it will affect the trains, we'll leave up to the MTA engineers," Leonard said.

Fire crews were able to keep the fire as much under control as possible, Leonard said.

"They got in there, they contained the fire to this one area," Leonard said. "Hopefully, we contained the damage, and we can get the people back on the railroad."

Leonard said there were people in the garden center when the fire broke out, but the FDNY spoke to the owner and he said all employees were accounted for.

One firefighter was injured when he tripped and fell while fighting the blaze, Leonard said.

With service out, Hudson Line service was provided from Morris Heights to points north, Harlem Line service from Wakefield to points north, and New Haven Line service from Mt. Vernon East to points east and from Stamford to New Haven.

Power was cut to the tracks at the scene of the fire, and thousands of commuters were caught in complete chaos at Grand Central Station.

"We were sitting on the train for a while until we realized we weren't going anywhere," said Garrett Nenner of Bedford.

"Very frustrating," said Joe Mingoia of May Brook, Orange County. "We thought that we'd be home by now."

Police also advised motorists to avoid Park Avenue between 116th and 119th streets in both directions.

The scene of the fire was just feet away from the site where a gas explosion leveled two buildings in March 2014, leaving eight people dead and dozens more injured.

Raymond Santana said he had a flashback to the 2014 fire when the flames broke out under the tracks.

"I thought it was the building here – remember there was the fire here before? I saw it was that, and I came running, and I saw the fire blowing up," he told WCBS 880's Alex Silverman.

At the time of the 2014 fire, there were reports that the Urban Garden Center was destroyed by flying debris, and reopened about a month later.

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