Two New York City apartment buildings collapsed on Wednesday in an explosion apparently caused by a gas leak, killing at least five people, injuring more than 30 others and setting off a search for several more victims feared trapped in the rubble, officials said.
The blast, which scattered debris across nearby rooftops, brought down the adjoining five-story buildings, with a total of 15 apartments, at about 9:30 a.m. local time on a largely residential Upper Manhattan block at East 116th Street and Park Avenue.
Clouds of thick smoke billowed from the rubble of the apartment houses that had sat above a ground-level church and a piano store in a largely Latino working-class neighbourhood.
Pockets of fire and heat smouldered inside the mounds of debris for many hours after the blasts, complicating search-and-rescue operations that continued under flood lights through the night, city Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella said.
The two destroyed buildings, at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. in East Harlem, were both five-storey brick apartments. On the ground floor, one housed a piano store and the other a storefront church.
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He said city officials estimated that nine people were still missing as of midnight, though a city police spokesman put the number of apartment residents who remained unaccounted for at about five.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rushed to the scene in East Harlem, where a cascade of twisted and burnt metal blocked the sidewalk and covered parked cars, said preliminary information showed the explosion was caused by a gas leak.
Officials told a news conference the blast occurred 15 minutes after a resident in an adjacent building called Con Edison to complain of a gas odour.
Edward Foppiano, Con Ed’s vice president for gas operations, said while the utility could not say for certain what caused the explosion, it was treating the incident as a gas leak issue. The utility most recently responded to customer complaint about a gas odour in the area in May, but the issue had been resolved, Foppiano said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the “gas explosion and subsequent fire.”
Metro-North Railroad, which had shut down train traffic moving through Manhattan while it cleared debris from the tracks, announced in late afternoon it had restored all commuter rail service through the area.
Two women were confirmed early in the day as having been killed, and the body of a third woman was found in the rubble later in the day, police said. Late Wednesday night, search teams pulled the body of a fourth victim from the site, fire department spokesman Khalid Baylor said.