NEW YORK — A massive explosion Wednesday levelled two apartment buildings in New York City, killing at least two women, injuring more than 20 people and hurling debris and blowing out windows for several city blocks. A utility company said a resident in a nearby building reported smelling gas shortly before the blast.
More than a dozen people were missing and two of those who were hurt had life-threatening injuries, fire officials said.
Smoke billowed above the city’s skyline and sidewalks in Harlem were littered with broken glass from shattered storefront and apartment windows. Witnesses say the explosion was so powerful it knocked groceries off the shelves of nearby stores and sent people running out onto the streets.
“There’s nothing left,” said Eusebio Perez, 48, a piano technician who lived in one of the buildings and rushed home from work as soon as he heard the news. “Just a bunch of bricks and wood.”
He added: “I only have what I’m wearing.”
The White House issued a statement offering “thoughts and prayers” and commending first responders. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rushed to the scene and said some of those unaccounted for might have fled to safety. He says the city was working hard to locate them.
Police, some wearing gas and medical masks, set up barricades and handed out masks to residents and onlookers to protected them from the thick, acrid smoke that shrouded the area. Those without masks held their hands or scarves over their faces.
“It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building,” said Waldemar Infante, 24, a porter from a nearby residential building who was working in the basement when the explosion occurred. “There were glass shards everywhere on the ground and all the stores had their windows blown out.”
A resident from a building next to the two that collapsed reported that he smelled gas inside his apartment, but thought the odour could be coming from outside, Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee said.
He said the utility dispatched two crews just after 9:15 a.m. but they arrived after the explosion. McGee said the street is served by an eight-inch (20-centimetre) low pressure gas main, but would not speculate on whether a gas leak caused the explosion.
“We’re working with the (fire department) and checking gas lines,” he said. “We’re working to isolate any leaks and make the area safe.”
One of the destroyed residential buildings housed a piano store on the ground floor, the other a storefront church. Building Department records showed that the building with the church got permits to install new gas piping in June.
A man who lives several blocks from the scene of the blast said he heard the explosion at about 9:30 a.m., 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,” Eoin Hayes, 26, said. “You could feel the vibrations going through the building.”
Hayes said the fire consumed one building and then moved to the one next to it before the flames eventually subsided.
The explosion occurred very close to elevated Metro-North commuter railroad tracks. Train service was suspended to and from Grand Central on all three train lines while employees remove debris from the tracks.
The fire department said it sent nearly 170 members to the scene.