At least seven people have been confirmed dead in the aftermath of a gas explosion that demolished two five-story apartment buildings in East Harlem, N.Y., Wednesday morning. Several others are injured and missing.
In a press conference near the scene of the blast, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the incident “a tragedy of the worst kind” and said that rescue operations would continue indefinitely with the hope of finding those missing still alive.
Strong winds and temperatures in the 20s impeded rescue efforts overnight as firefighters continued to extinguish flames that lingered after the initial explosion set fire to the debris, some of which was found blocks away from the site of the explosion at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. between 116th and 117th Streets.
Investigators believe that the explosion originated from the Absolute Piano shop at the ground level of 1646. The ground floor of the building next door housed the Spanish Christian Church. Both buildings contained 15 residential apartments between them, all of which were destroyed.
The blast occurred just after 9:30 a.m. Utility company Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) said that the main gas pipe in the area had been checked twice in February, but that no problems were found. Con Ed reported that someone had called to report a strong gas odor at 9:13 a.m. Wednesday morning and that the smell had been present the night before. Other area residents said the odor had been permeating the neighborhood for months.
One resident of 1646 Park Ave. told the New York Post that the smell of gas was “overwhelming” in the corridors of the building and that he and several other tenants had called New York’s non-emergency 311 number to report the problem.
The same witness reported that firefighters responded to one call just before Christmas but said everything checked out fine.
“When you get a confirmation from somebody like the fire department and they say it’s fine, you think it’s fine,” the resident told the New York Post. “We thought everything was alright.”
The Mayor’s office has said that there were no complaints or signs of trouble until 17 minutes before the blast occurred, contradicting what some of the residents have said.
Witnesses also told the New York Post that they had tried to report the gas odor on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning but couldn’t get through.