By Olivia Scheck
LOWER EAST SIDE — NYC Transit employee Philip Vasquez should have left work on time Thursday morning. Instead, the night-shift worker, who's scheduled to get off at 6 a.m., lingered for a few minutes to chat with co-workers.
Just as he was getting ready to leave for his car, which was parked on Essex Street, just north of Delancey Street, a manhole caught fire, shooting scalding hot smoke at the underbelly of his Nissan Sentra.
"When they told me [the manhole] was on fire, I said, 'Well, let me move [the car].' But when I tried to move it, I couldn't stop – I ended up hitting the car in front of me," the Long Island man explained shortly after the incident. "I have to get it towed [since] apparently my brakes are gone."
There was no significant damage to either car as a result of the bump, and Vasquez, 37, proceeded to wait patiently for a tow truck, which had been summoned by the NYPD.
In that time, firefighters watched over the manhole blaze until it burned itself out; they performed carbon monoxide readings in nearby buildings to confirm that they were not contaminated, and they left the scene.
ConEd workers arrived and began to repair the damaged electrical equipment, pumping water out of the manhole, while the Vasquez continued to wait.
"There are worse things in life," he said of his predicament, standing on the freezing Lower East Side sidewalk.
Nearly four hours later, around 10 a.m., a tow truck arrived.
It appeared that the even-keeled transit worker would soon be saved from his bad day, until the tow truck driver informed him that his truck was not compatible with Vasquez's Nissan. The car was too low to the ground to be towed, and Vasquez would have to wait for a flatbed truck to remove the vehicle.
So, he waited. And, eventually, around 11 a.m., nearly five hours after his brakes were melted, the car, which Vasquez said reeked of burned rubber, was hauled to a lot in Brooklyn, where the Montauk resident would later have to retrieve it.
As he watched his car mounted onto the truck Vasquez said he considered himself lucky.
"The gas tank's right there, so that could have been a disaster," he said.
Indeed, Allan Drury, a spokesman for ConEd, said cars have ignited over manhole fires in the past, though he did not know precisely how many times it had happened.
Drury and the FDNY Battalion Chief who responded to the scene, James Costello, noted that manhole fires are common in the wintertime, the result of snow salt, which drains into the sewers and corrodes the electrical wiring.
Drury also suggested that Vasquez file a claim with the ConEd so that he could potentially be reimbursed for the damage to his car – a welcome bit of good news for the upbeat transit worker who would have to return to work on the Lower East Side in less than 12 hours.