The three-alarm fire broke out just before 4 p.m., a spokesman for the FDNY said, and 30 units with 145 firefighters rushed to assist at the scene. No injuries were sustained, a spokesman said.
The fire started underneath the pier, near where the antique schooner 'Clipper City' ports, a fire source on the scene told DNAinfo.com New York on the scene. The FDNY said the first call came in at 3:52 p.m., and witnesses sharing images on Twitter noticed plumes billowing of the end of Pier 17 around 3:55 p.m.
Sean James, 40 a crew member on one of the New York Water Taxi lines, said his boat rushed in to help.
"We were docking when we saw the fire, I pulled the firehose right away," he said. "We went right in. We were that close — I could hear the wood bubbling and cracking. It was hot over there," he said.
"We sprayed it down as much as possible before the FDNY fireboat arrived."
Restaurant-goers said the fire came frightfully close to what had been peaceful lunch hours.
"Oh my god, it was a big fire," said James Budd, 33, who had been eating lunch on the pier with a friend. "There were pillars of smoke licking up the bottom of the staircase of Pier 17," he said, near the Pier 17 Mall. "I was a little scared. We just ran out of there," he said.
Neil Acevedo, 25, who was also having lunch, said, "I saw the flames coming up and out of the floorboards. I grabbed my gear and I ran out of there."
Twitter users quickly posted piles of photos of the dark smoke from different vantage points.
"It was chilling because all that smoke, and especially because it's in Lower Manhattan, conjures up 9/11..." tweeted @Shivani510, who posted a photo from a bridge.
Alex Mizrahi, 29, a communications manager, posted an image of the crowds and said he was surprised to find himself caught up in an evacuation on the pier where he'd gone with friends for a peaceful break from 4Knots, a music festival put on by the Village Voice over two stages on the inland side of piers 16 and 17.
"We were going to wander down Pier 17, but as we were walking towards it, everyone was suddenly walking away from it," he said, being ushered by the music festival's staff. "People were holding food in their hands, so it was a bit of a rush, but it was very orderly," he said. "The festival people were working to try and keep people calm."
A festival spokesman said the fire was on the other side of the pier from the concerts. "Fire was very small and was put out quickly," wrote Keith Hagan, spokesman for 4Knots in an email to DNAinfo.com New York. "The 4Knots Music Festival was stopped briefly so the fire department could conduct their work." He said at 5:15 p.m. that music would be resumed "shortly."
At 4:30 p.m., Mizrahi he said the smoke seemed to be gone, but he saw at least 30 firefighters "just standing around the pier in groups" apparently waiting.
"I hear some sort of chainsaw or something operating, but we can't see who's using it...that saw makes me thing they're taking something apart," he added.
The FDNY did not have any further information Sunday night as to what had caused the blaze.