Two buildings collapse in Harlem

2 dead, 22 hurt, others missing after gas explosion in East Harlem

March 12, 2014

"This is a tragedy of the worst kind"

—Bill de Blasio

At least two people were killed and more than a dozen injured Wednesday when a gas leak triggered a “major explosion” that leveled two five-story buildings in East Harlem, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A gas leak triggered the large explosion in East Harlem, destroying two buildings, killing two people. At least 22 others were wounded, including two with life-threatening injuries. More than a dozen remain missing, according to authorities.

More fatalities appeared likely. Near 116th Street and Park Avenue, once the heart of New York’s large Puerto Rican community, about a dozen firefighters tore at mounds of bricks in a search for survivors from the two buildings- a piano store and a Spanish Christian Church.

The mayor said the explosion occurred at 9:31 a.m. ET, only minutes before a Con Ed utilities team arrived on the scene to check on reports of a natural gas leak.

“This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people,” de Blasio said. “We have lost two people already.”

As gas and electric utility workers tore up pavement in an effort to shut gas lines, people gathered in the streets, many crying. One woman tried in vain to find her husband who may have been on the second floor of one of the collapsed buildings. She fainted and was taken to a hospital.

A senior city official said that they had received reports of more than a dozen people who cannot be reached, but cautioned that the missing may simple be out of touch.

The explosion, which could be felt more than a mile away, blew out windows in surrounding buildings and sent debris crashing down onto nearby streets. Witnesses reported seeing people trapped in their cars, in the rubble and in neighboring apartments. They described desperate rescue attempts even as family and friends of some people who live in the destroyed buildings sought information about their condition.

Clouds of dark smoke rose over the largely residential area of redbrick tenements and small businesses after the explosion, which some residents said sounded like a bomb.

Hundreds of firefighters responded, many spraying water on the roaring blaze from ladders, others furiously pulling bricks from the collapsed buildings.

More than three hours after the explosion, firefighters continued to battle flames. Trained dogs were assisting in the search for survivors.

Nearly 200 firefighters from 44 units responded and by late afternoon, they could be seen sifting through the wreckage, passing buckets of debris hand to hand to clear it from the site.

“We have to be very careful,” said Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassan. “The building is in a very precarious position.

The New York police bomb squad responded to the scene, according to a law enforcement source.

Metro North commuter rail service was suspended as debris from the explosion landed on the elevated tracks across the street, authorities said.

Once a predominantly Italian neighborhood, the stretch of East Harlem saw a large influx of Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. It went on to be called Spanish Harlem. In the 1990s, many Mexican immigrants began to move into the area, which has been gentrified in recent years, with many mom-an-pop shops replaced by restaurants and bars.

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