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Con Edison Responsible for Fire That Almost 'Burned Alive' Inwood Family

By Carla Zanoni | May 14, 2012 6:28am

INWOOD — A burnout in an underground cable was to blame for a three-alarm blaze that nearly trapped a family inside their Upper Manhattan home when fire from a manhole shot up from the ground in March, a Con Edison official revealed.

“A cable burnout in a company service box appears to have affected the nearby house,” Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert wrote in an email to DNAinfo.com New York.

The fire, which took more than an hour to put out, spread from the manhole where the cable burned out and then to the house on March 23, according to the FDNY. The sleeping family inside tried to escape the smoky home through the front door, but the heat forced them to turn back.

"We tried to go out the front, but the living room was full of smoke, so we ran out the back way," said Bernard Crystal, 74, who has lived in the house since 1977.

Con Edison said the cause of a March 23 fire that gutted an Inwood home was caused by a
Con Edison said the cause of a March 23 fire that gutted an Inwood home was caused by a "cable burnout."
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DNAinfo/Bruce Katz

"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."

Following the fire, the Crystals moved in with neighbors until recently relocating into a nearby apartment while they sort out the logistics of rebuilding the inside of the home. 

According to Cyrstal, the family's insurance company is currently working with Con Edison to determine who will pay for damages to the house and replace personal belongings.  

The attached home next door suffered water and smoke damage, according to the FDNY, but the pastor for the Broadway Methodist Temple and his family have not returned to their home since the fire, neighbors said. 

The family was alerted to the fire when Crystal's daughter heard a "terrible rumbling" on the ground floor before dashing upstairs to warn her family.

Witnesses said they felt the ground rumbling and one neighbor said he saw flames shooting up from the manhole before the house caught flames.

"It was like a motorcycle starting up," said Inwood resident 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."

Crystal said he and neighbors are relieved to learn the cause of the fire.

"That's what we all assumed on the block," he told DNAinfo New York on Sunday.

"We had been trying to find out if we had done something wrong all this time, but obviously we couldn't."

The manhole had last been serviced three years prior to the incident, a Con Edison spokeswoman told DNAinfo after the fire. It was not immediately clear whether there was work going on in the area at the time of the explosion.

Neighbors said they were concerned that something similar could happen in the future. 

“We’re lucky it didn’t spread to one of the larger buildings on the block,” Inwood resident Mark Cardillo, 34, said. “We need to make sure something like this can never happen again.”

Con Edison spokesman Olert said there is no cause for concern, "because it does not happen frequently."

According to Olert, the energy company is “constantly monitoring” its underground system of more than 250,000 manholes and service boxes throughout the city and Westchester County, and “replacing older cable and equipment on a regular basis.”

The company monitors its circuits throughout the system to anticipate problems and make replacements as necessary, she said.

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, company spokeswoman Sandra Banda said in March.

For now, the family plans to continue sorting through the few surviving items in their basement and ground floor, including water-damaged family photos dating as far back as 1940.

According to Crystal, the black and white photos fared best and other than smudged edges, parents, cousins and children can be made out.

"Those little things help," Crystal said with an optimistic tone, adding that the dark days immediately following the fire are beginning to fade, especially for his wife, who could hardly bare to pass the gutted house until recently.

"Nobody could sleep the week after," he said of his neighbors on the block. "They were all wondering if their house would be next. None of us knew what was happening under the street."