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Inwood Blaze Sparked by Manhole Fire, Officials Say

By DNAinfo Staff on March 23, 2012 7:32am  | Updated on March 23, 2012 7:56pm

By Sonja Sharp and Carla Zanoni

DNAinfo Staff

INWOOD — The fire that ripped through a West 217th St. home early Friday started in a manhole outside of the two-story private house, fire officials said.

The massive fire, which nearly trapped a family inside and left 12 firefighters injured, sparked in a manhole in front of 531 W. 217th St. before spreading to the home, an investigation into the blaze determined.

The blaze quickly rose to a third-alarm, officials said, the flames quickly engulfing both floors.

"The fire started in the manhole and then communicated to their home," said Frank Dwyer, an FDNY spokesman. "The fire then extended to the house next door before being brought under control."

A fire ripped through a two-story home at 531 W. 217th St. early Fri., March 23, 2012, injuring 12 firefighters.
A fire ripped through a two-story home at 531 W. 217th St. early Fri., March 23, 2012, injuring 12 firefighters.
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DNAinfo/Bruce Katz

Bernard Crystal, 74, who has bought the house in 1977, said he was relieved to hear that the fire had started outside of his home. 

"When I left the house I said, 'What did I do wrong that there was a fire?'" he told DNAinfo Friday evening. "I'm glad to know I didn’t leave some oily rags somewhere."

Inwood residents described smelling smoke and hearing an explosion outside on the street before the flames tore through the home.

Crystal said his daughter heard a "terrible rumbling" on the ground-floor before dashing upstairs to warn her family. 

"We tried to go out the front, but the living room was full of smoke, so we ran out the back way," he said. "Just as we got out of the house, the explosion occurred. The living room burst into flames. We were seconds away from being burned alive."

A woman living on the semi-detached property's other side, which did not suffer as much damage, said her husband was awake when he noticed the flames.

"He saw the light was flickering and the floor was rumbling," said Yvette Rivera, 52, who moved there with her husband from the East Village about 10 months ago.

"He saw the streetlight flickering and smelled smoke. We ran out and saw the flames shooting up from the manhole. We're lucky we didn't lose someone."

Others described hearing a loud noise emanate from the manhole in front of the home.

"It was like a motorcycle starting up," said neighbor Robin Schwartz, 57. "There were flames shooting from the manhole cover. The fire was many colors, purple and green. I'd never seen anything like it."

Con Ed has four underground service boxes on the West 217th St. block, a hub of electricity that feeds service to 85 customers in the area, Sandra Banda, a spokeswoman, said.

Banda said some of the equipment was damaged, but she refused to say whether it happened before the fire, or because of it.

"We're going to defer to the FDNY's investigation," Banda said.

The blaze wiped out service for 90 Con Edison customers in the area, Banda said. Service was restored at approximately 5 p.m.

The Department of Buildings, meanwhile, issued a full vacate order on on the house because of the damage, a spokeswoman said. The neighboring house was vacated, too, she added.

Crystal said it was too soon to tell the full extent of the damage, but said the ground floor of the home had at least partially collapsed into the basement and would have to be rebuilt. At first glance it appeared the outer structure of the building had remained intact. 

"The structure doesn’t have to be taken down, but we have a lot of work to do," Crystal said. "We're hoping to be back in the house in six months to a year."

The West 217th Street two-family home was the scene of a notorious fire in 1970. The righthand portion of the house was home of State Supreme Court John M. Murtagh, who was presiding over hearings involving Black Panthers accused of bombing public places, the house was attacked by three gas bombs.

And in what Crystal termed an ironic twist, the only other owner of the Crystal's portion of the house was a vice president of Con Edison. 

Although the fire saddened residents throughout the neighborhood, Crystal said he was in good spirits Friday night as he sat down to dinner at a neighbor's house two doors away from the fire. 

"We have loving neighbors," he said. "They’ve fed us, clothed us, literally. We will be OK."

Patrick Hedlund and Wil Cruz contributed to this story.