The explosion echoed in the streets of SoHo on Saturday afternoon as tourists walked along dampened sidewalks and a crowd gathered inside the Fanelli Cafe, one of the city’s older restaurants.
Eric Buechel, the manager of the cafe, which is on the southwest corner of Prince and Mercer Streets, said that the lights began flickering just after 2 p.m. He went down to his basement office to check electrical lines, then heard the noise which he said sounded like “a very deep pitch, muffled explosion sound” then a “multiple series of follow-up pops.”
Michael Beyer, who works at another nearby cafe, Angelique Express, described the sound he had heard as a “big boom,” then added: “a couple booms.” A moment later he saw a crush of people running from the intersection of Prince and Mercer, where swirling smoke poured from beneath a parked car.
Within minutes firefighters arrived and determined there had been a manhole explosion, said a Fire Department spokesman, Michael Parrella, adding that there had been reports of others.
Firefighters found elevated carbon dioxide readings in the area. They evacuated 94 Prince Street a five-story red brick building that houses the Fanelli Cafe, a speakeasy during Prohibition that later catered to factory workers and painters before SoHo became fashionable.
In the midst of the chaos the car’s owner arrived and found that the rear bumper of his maroon Lexus had been blackened and its rear window was covered in soot. The owner, Tim Duff, 29, of Brooklyn, said that he had been away only a brief time, to visit the Apple store down the street.
“I’m more baffled than anything,” he said, gazing at the firefighters and police officers near his car. “I was all psyched I had found a great parking spot.”
Some of the Fanelli patrons fled without paying their tabs. Others stuck around outside. Then, after a second reading by firefighters revealed that the air quality inside 94 Prince Street was back to normal, a crowd again filled the bar and the bartender resumed pouring drinks, even though the electricity was still off.
As men and women sat at the darkened bar, swapping stories, Mr. Buechel went to the office and grabbed some tall white candles in glass sleeves emblazoned with religious illustrations. Then he arranged them across the bar.
“We have the same candles from Hurricane Sandy,” Mr. Buechel said. “The same ones, re-lit.”
Sometime after 5 p.m. explosions sounded again from outside but this time few people noticed.