A deadly blast caused by a gas leak in New York City levelled a pair of East Harlem apartment buildings Wednesday morning, killing three people and injuring more than 50 others as rubble was thrown several blocks away.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed in the evening that a third victim had died, while the number of missing was brought down to nine from more than a dozen.
By evening, rescue workers finally began the search for victims amid the broken bricks, splintered wood and mangled metal after firefighters spent most of the day dousing the flames. Heavy trucks arrived to clear the mountain of debris where the two five-storey buildings had stood
Hunter College identified one of the people killed in the blast as Griselde Camacho, a security officer who worked at the Silberman School of Social Work building. Hunter, in a statement on its website, said Camacho, 45, had worked for the college since 2008.
Another of the people who died was Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist. Her cousin News 12 cameraman Angel Vargas said when she didn't show up for work Wednesday the family started a frantic search.
The identity of the third victim wasn't immediately disclosed.
A spokesman with Mount Sinai hospital said 22 people, including three children, were admitted for treatment, mostly for minor injuries. The hospital official told reporters that one woman found in the rubble was in critical condition, having suffered "head trauma."
De Blasio said the massive explosion, which occurred around 9:30 a.m. ET, was triggered by a gas leak.
From a safe zone about two blocks away from the explosion site, reporter Alexis Christoforous told CBC News that the gas company Con Edison was already responding to a suspected leak in the area when the blast occurred.
"About 15 minutes before the explosion, Con Edison received a phone call from a neighbour saying she smelled gas," Christoforous reported.
The force of the explosion shattered windows in the neighbourhood and knocked groceries off store shelves.
"It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building," said Waldemar Infante, a porter who was working in a basement nearby. "There were glass shards everywhere on the ground, and all the stores had their windows blown out."
De Blasio said that people who were unaccounted for might have fled for safety. He said the city was working hard to locate them.
City officials urged tenants or their friends and family to phone a hotline at 311 to report their whereabouts.
"We have a lot of people in this community right now deeply concerned," de Blasio said from near the site of the explosion. "A lot of people have been negatively affected … wondering where their loved ones are."
Residents who lived on the same block as the two collapsed five-storey buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. said they felt their surroundings shake.
"One young lady who was living with her parents, she was sleeping at the time, she said she was thrown out of bed by the force of the explosion," Christoforous reported.
Police said two women believed to be in their 40s were killed.
The East Harlem neighbourhood was at a standstill as police set up barricades to keep residents away from the building that was still spewing thick smoke. Some people wore surgical masks while others held their hands or scarves over their faces.
Sidewalks for blocks around were littered with broken glass from shattered storefront and apartment windows.
The CBC’s Melissa Kent, reporting from New York, said authorities have closed off several city blocks surrounding the scene as they search for anyone trapped in the structure. The bottom level of one of the destroyed buildings was a piano store. The first floor of the other building was a storefront church.
Eusebio Perez, a resident of the one of the buildings, heard news of the explosion and hurried back from his job as a piano technician.
"There's nothing left," he said. "Just a bunch of bricks and wood."
Perez, 48, said he shared an apartment with a roommate and was unsure what his next steps would be.
"I only have what I'm wearing," he said. "I have to find a place to stay for tonight and organize what's going to be my next steps."
Eoin Hayes, 26, said the explosion shook his entire apartment building in Harlem. He ran to the window and saw flames consuming one building and smoke rising into the air.
"I was in my bedroom and the explosion went off, it kind of shook the whole building," Hayes said. "You could feel the vibrations going through the building."
Huge explosion at east harlem. A building just completely exploded. pic.twitter.com/0sBuG5U0d0— Adnan Islam (@orangeadnan) March 12, 2014
Bernadette Flaim felt the explosion from her office across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
“It literally rattled our house,” she told CBC News Network. “I knew it had to be something significant.”
Her husband, who is safe, works at Mount Sinai Hospital, just blocks away the site of the collapse. Flaim said the hospital went into immediate emergency mode to deal with potential victims.
Neighbour reported gas odour in area
A tenant from one of the collapsed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said that residents had complained to the landlord about the smell of gas as recently as Tuesday, a day before the disaster.
A few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odour, which he said was so bad that a tenant on the top floor broke open the door to the roof for ventilation.
"It was unbearable," said Borrero, who lived in a second-floor apartment with his mother and sister. "You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out."
Con Ed spokesman Bob McGee said a resident from a building next to the two that collapsed reported smelling gas inside his apartment, but thought the odour could be coming from outside.
McGee said two crews were sent to the scene within two minutes of the initial complaint at 9:15, but they arrived too late.
He said the street is served by a low-pressure gas main. He would not speculate on whether a gas leak caused the explosion.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority issued a tweet advising that train service in and out of Grand Central station on the Metro-North line has been suspended while workers clear debris from the blast off the tracks.
McGee said a preliminary review by the utility found "nothing that indicates there was any call in the immediate past from anyone on that block" before Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate. The agency investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters.