The death toll from a massive gas explosion which destroyed two buildings in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City rose to six as rescuers continued to look for survivors.
The search continued overnight with at least a dozen more still missing as of early today, according to the New York Post. Four women and two men were among the dead while as many as 60 were injured, according to the Associated Press. Local authorities say searches of the street have ended with no victims found there, the AP said.
The explosion at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave., near 116th Street, reported about 9:30 a.m. yesterday, was heard miles away and turned into a five-alarm fire. Windows were blown out as far as 10 blocks away, and cars parked on the street were wrecked. Debris flung onto adjacent elevated train tracks disrupted commuter rail service in and out of Grand Central Terminal.
“This is a tragedy of the worst kind,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a news conference near the scene. He said residents are still missing from the buildings, which had a total of 15 units, and crews would search for them when the fire is extinguished.
Fifteen minutes after a New York City resident reported the pervasive smell of gas in her East Harlem neighborhood, the blast destroyed the two buildings. Utility workers arrived 10 minutes too late.
Ruben Borrero, 32, who lived at 1646 Park Ave. with his mother and sister, said it took him a half-hour before he could contact them by telephone to learn they had all been out of the building when the explosion occurred. Their dog was unaccounted for, he said.
“It’s an empty lot; it’s like someone took an eraser to it,” he said as he stood outside the James Weldon Johnson public school on East 115th Street, where the Red Cross had established a relief center. “I’m just happy they’re alive.”
He said he smelled gas yesterday and that a few months ago the stench had been “unbearable,” even inside the building.
After a neighbor called Consolidated Edison Inc. about a similar smell at 9:13 a.m. today, the utility dispatched a crew two minutes later, said Bob McGee, a company spokesman. The crew arrived just after the explosion, he said.
McGee of Con Ed said the explosion’s cause and whether gas leaks continue are unclear. Customers in the area are served by an 8-inch, low-pressure gas main, he said.
“Our crews are checking gas lines and working to isolate any leaks and working closely with FDNY to make the area safe,” he said, referring to the city fire department.
Javon Scott, 21, a resident of the Robert A. Taft Houses on 115th Street and Madison Avenue, said he was awakened from his sleep when the blast blew in his windows spraying the floor with glass.
“I thought it was something with the train, or terrorists,” he said.
Walter Leiva, 18, spent hours searching for his aunt, Geneva Rivera, 43, until learning from his father that she was alive and being treated at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. She lived on the seventh floor at 1646 Park Ave. for at least five years, he said.
“She’s like a second mom to me,” he said outside the Red Cross outpost. He said he had no information about her condition.
Firefighters, lifted above billowing smoke on towering ladders, sprayed water on the rubble of red-brick buildings that remained engulfed by flames as crowds gathered at the intersection of 116th and Lexington.
The fire department sent dozens of pieces of equipment, including cranes and backhoes, and more than 250 firefighters, according to Commissioner Salvatore Cassano. Traffic was down for about 20 square blocks, department spokesman Frank Gribbon said.
“The plan right now is to extinguish the fire,” Cassano said. “We have to clean the sidewalk of debris and brick to make sure that there was nobody on the sidewalk or the street, and then once the fire is under control and extinguished we will start to do some surface removal, debris removal. We have to be very careful. The building is in a very precarious position.
The address of the explosion was occupied by the Spanish Christian Church, a piano-repair shop and apartments, according to Google Inc.’s mapping service. The church owns 1644 Park Ave., which housed six apartments, de Blasio said. The other building held nine residential dwellings.
New York City’s buildings department in June approved an application by a plumber to install 120 feet of pipe at that address to supply gas to a stove on the fifth floor of a walk-up apartment, according to a filing.
Konstantinos Doukas, 31, whose father owns Sam’s Famous Pizza at 116th Street and Lexington Avenue, said the explosion sent debris flying over the tops of buildings and shook the pizzeria’s windows.
‘‘It was like a big bomb,” he said.
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