A steam pipe has exploded beneath a street in Manhattan's Flatiron District, blasting a whole through the asphalt of Fifth Avenue.
The explosions, which happened around 6.40am local time, sent a plume of scalding steam about 10ft skywards.
The New York Fire Department closed a number of roads in Manhattan's Flatiron District, causing disruption to many peoples' morning commutes.
There were multiple reports that a number of manhole covers exploded into the air from West 19th Street to West 21st Street.
The incident forced the evacuation of 49 buildings and five people, including three civilians, suffered minor injuries.
Officials warned people who may have got material on them to bag their clothes and shower immediately as a precaution.
On a street near the blast site, firefighters stripped off their heavy outerwear, bagged it and entered a red decontamination tent in their gym shorts and T-shirts to take showers.
“There was asbestos in the steam line casing,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said about eight hours after the explosion but “the air cleared fairly quickly after the incident”.
He added: “There is no meaningful presence of asbestos in the air at this point.”
Mr De Blasio said it could take days to check and clean the buildings, which include 28 in a “hot zone” closest to the site where the blast left a crater roughly 20 feet by 15 feet in the street.
It was not immediately determined what caused the blast in the 20-inch pipe. The mayor said no work was being done on the pipe at the time.
“It was a pretty violent explosion,” Lizio-Katzen told the New York Daily News. “The steam was shooting up into the air about 70 feet. It was pushing up at such a high pressure that it was spewing all of this dirt and debris. The cars around were coated in mud ... It left a huge crater in the middle of the street.”
Brendan Walsh, 22, a student at New York University, said the plume of smoke was “about six stories high."
"There was a large scatter of debris,” he told the Associated Press. “I was standing behind the police line when a Con Cd worker came rushing over and screaming at police and firefighters to push everyone north because he was worried that there could be secondary manhole explosions.”
Associated Press contributed to this report