Firefighters at the scene of an explosion and building collapse in New York on Wednesday. (AP)
New York, March 12: A gas leak triggered a large explosion that destroyed two buildings in East Harlem, New York City, this morning, killing two persons and wounding more than a dozen.
Firefighters were still battling flames in the afternoon and prepared to sift through the debris for survivors, most likely a delicate operation that could last into the night.
“This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a news conference shortly after noon. At least 18 people were injured, and De Blasio said a number of people were still missing.
“There will be a search through the rubble as soon as the fire has been put out,” De Blasio said. “This will take quite a bit of time.”
A senior city official said that more than a dozen people remained missing, but cautioned that they may simply be out of touch.
The explosion, which could be heard 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 neighbouring 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.
The fire department said it received the first report at 9.31am, and discovered upon arriving that two residential buildings — 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue — had completely collapsed.
More than three hours after the explosion, firefighters continued to battle flames. Trained dogs were assisting in the search for survivors.
“We have to be very careful,” said Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano. “The building is in a very precarious position.”
Officials said the only indication of danger came minutes before the explosion occurred.
Elizabeth Matthews, a spokeswoman for Con Edison energy company, said that a customer reported a heavy gas odour at 9.13am. The woman, a resident at 1652 Park Avenue, reported smelling gas in her apartment, but noted that it could have come from outside.