ASTORIA – A transformer explosion at the Con Edison electrical plant in Astoria, Queens, set the skies above New York City ablaze in an eerie, pulsing blue light on the night of December 27, causing scattered power outages, delaying flights, and sparking a social media storm of jokes about an alien invasion.
The blast prompted a brief fire at the facility, but no injuries, and a spectacular illumination of the New York skyline that generated a flurry of online commentary.
The explosion impacted subway service in the area and caused a brief ground stop at LaGuardia Airport, which experienced power outages.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo described a "major electrical failure" at the electrical substation along the East River, near the Rikers Island prison complex and across a small bay from LaGuardia.
People flocked to social media to find out what happened and to share their views of the plumes of smoke pouring from the transformer.
"It was pitch black outside and then suddenly the whole side of the eastern sky was lighting up and changing colors," said Madeleine Frank Reeves, who saw the lights from her Upper West Side apartment. "It lasted a couple of minutes."
Some observers wondered whether aliens were invading and joked that the trend of gender reveal parties had finally gone too far. Television host Keith Olbermann referred to the episode as the "Blue Light Special."
"Something insane is happening in the sky above Manhattan right now," New York University sociologist Eric Klineberg wrote on Twitter under a video of the flashing sky. Mayor Bill de Blasio's spokesman Eric Phillips tweeted that the lights were attributable to a "blown transformer."
"Not aliens," Phillips tweeted.
John Tebbett, who lives two blocks away from the facility, told NY1 the explosion was followed for about five minutes by a loud roar. The blast had caused the lights in his home to flicker off and on, he said. Tebbett, an instructor with the local electrical union, walked down toward the facility to get a better look.
"You could hear the roar and see the super white, bright light," Tebbett said. "It took them about five minutes, maybe. As we were watching it, it was like somebody turned off the power and it just went dark and then it was quiet. The roar stopped and it was dead quiet for a moment and then you could hear the emergency vehicles start to come in."
It was the second major incident involving Con Edison in the last six months. In July, a steam pipe explosion spewed asbestos-laden vapor into the air in Manhattan's Flatiron District, driving hundreds of people from their homes and businesses.
Con Edison said on Twitter Thursday night that there was "a brief electrical fire at our substation in Astoria which involved some electrical transformers and caused a transmission dip in the area." The utility said in a statement early Friday that an electrical fault on the 138,000 volt equipment caused a sustained electrical arc flash but the "affected equipment was isolated to a single section within the substation."
Con Edison said it had restored all major transmission lines associated with the event and was in the process of investigating the cause of the failure.
George Delis, president of the Athens Square Committee in Astoria, described, in addition to the big boom, a bright light appeared, while for a short time the electricity went out.
“I was watching TV and it went out. I see this big light and I thought it was... a UFO. I got my phone and went out the door to videotape it and see the fire. It was a big fire and a bright color,” said Delis, who pointed out that although he has been living in the area for 35 years, he had not experienced anything like that.
“I've been living here for 35 years, but I've never seen such an incident with Con Edison. The good thing is that no one was injured. Firefighters came right away. That was the light that came into my room,” adding humorously that he “was disappointed that it was not a UFO.” Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.