Blast destroys 2 NYC buildings; at least 2 dead

Emergency workers respond to the scene of an explosion and building collapse in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. The explosion leveled an apartment building, and sent flames and billowing black smoke above the skyline. (AP Photo/Jeremy Sailing)

Emergency workers respond to the scene of an explosion and building collapse in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. The explosion leveled an apartment building, and sent flames and billowing black smoke above the skyline. (AP Photo/Jeremy Sailing)

NEW YORK — A gas leak triggered an earthshaking explosion that flattened two East Harlem apartment buildings Wednesday, killing at least two people, injuring more than 50 and leaving over a dozen others missing. One tenant said residents had complained repeatedly in recent weeks about “unbearable” gas smells.

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-story buildings stood.

The fiery blast on Park Avenue at 116th Street, not far from the edge of Central Park, erupted about 9:30 a.m., around 15 minutes after a neighboring resident reported smelling gas, authorities said. Con Edison said it immediately sent utility workers to check out the report, but they didn’t arrive until it was too late.

The explosion shattered windows a block away, rained debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks close by and sent people running into the streets.

“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.”

Police said two women believed to be in their 40s were killed. At least three of the injured were children; one, a 15-year-old boy, was reported in critical condition with burns, broken bones and internal injuries. Most of the other victims’ injuries were minor and included cuts and scrapes.

Fire officials said more than a dozen people were unaccounted for, but cautioned that some may not have been in the buildings.

A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said residents had complained to the landlord about smelling gas as recently as Tuesday, a day before the disaster.

A few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odor, 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, all of whom were away at the time of the explosion. “You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out.”

The Fire Department said a check of its records found no instances in the past month in which tenants of the two buildings reported gas odors or leaks.

Edward Foppiano, a Con Ed senior vice president, said there was only one gas odor complaint on record with the utility from either address, and it was last May, at the building next door to Borrero’s. It was a small leak in customer piping and was fixed, he said.

The block was last checked on Feb. 28 as part of a regular leak survey, and no problems were detected, Foppiano said.

A resident of the one of the buildings, Eusebio Perez, 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.” He added: “I only have what I’m wearing. I have to find a place to stay for tonight and organize what’s going to be my next steps.”

A Red Cross center was set up at a public school, where about 50 people had gathered, including some who were searching for loved ones.

The explosion destroyed everything Borrero’s family owned, including the ashes of his father, who died a few years ago. Borrero said he assumes his 5-year-old terrier, Nina, was killed.

But “I have my mother and sister,” he said. “I’m happy for that.”

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