New York: The explosion was so powerful it lifted Jaye Virgo off the bed where she lay in her Harlem apartment and blasted her window fan from the sill. Outside that window was chaos. People lay on the pavement, strewed among shattered glass and parts ripped from cars, the sidewalk dusted in ash.
Across the street was a gaping hole, breathing fire. Two red brick buildings, standing moments earlier, were gone, collapsed into rubble that spilled across Park Avenue on Wednesday, subsuming parked cars in piles of brick and concrete.
"It was intense," said Malcolm McMahon, who lives two blocks away. "It ripped the stomach right out of you."
The site of the deadly building explosion and collapse in Harlem. Photo: Reuters
The explosion that erupted around 9.30am in Harlem – caused by a gas leak, according to the New York City Fire Department – was instantaneous. So was the response of neighbours and passers-by, witnesses said. They streamed into the street and quickly began working to rescue people trapped in the cars that were buried in rubble.
Michael Lewis, 48, raced to the scene from his home on Lexington Avenue, arriving before emergency workers, he said. There he joined a group already surrounding a van where four people were trapped inside, and helped peel back the rubble that confined them.
"People were running to help the people, to pull them out of the rubble," said Andrew Thomas, 20, a college student who lives in a building next to those that collapsed. "One person was unconscious, another one was bloody."
The buildings that collapsed. Photo: Fairfax
The explosion killed at least seven people, the police said, with the toll likely to rise. By evening, the number of people who had sought medical attention for injuries topped 60, and dozens remained hospitalised. Officials said several people were missing, but it was unclear whether they were buried in the wreckage or had been out of the area and were safe elsewhere.
Melissa Weller, a baker who works nearby, said that the explosion sent panicked crowds running. "At first we didn't know if it was a train derailing or a bomb," she said.
On the lower levels of the two five-storey apartment buildings that collapsed were commercial spaces, one occupied by a piano shop called Absolute Piano and the other a storefront church, the Spanish Christian Church.
A total of 250 firefighters responded to the emergency, officials said. Photo: Reuters
Colin Patterson, who was on the job in the piano shop said pianos "flew literally off the ground".
Carlos Perez, 48, who lives in one of the two collapsed buildings, was at work in the South Bronx at the time. He said his building was primarily occupied by immigrants, most of whom are Latino men. The other building was filled with families, Mr Perez said.
Police and firefighters swarmed the street, many of them wearing masks against the choking black smoke. Firefighters hosed down the flames, some atop two ladders that had been erected off the back of fire trucks. A total of 250 firefighters responded, fire officials said.
The explosion was caused by a gas leak, the New York City Fire Department said. Photo: Reuters
The images of cars coated in ash and smoke swallowing the street reminded many of how lower Manhattan looked after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said someone called Consolidated Edison at 9.13am to report the smell of gas outside a building next to the two that collapsed. Two minutes later, utility workers were dispatched to the scene, but they did not get there in time. By 9.31am, the two side-by-side brick structures, housing a total of 15 apartment units, were gone.
"The explosion occurred before that team could arrive," Mr De Blasio said as rescue workers continued searching for possible victims and survivors. "This is a tragedy of the worst kind, because there was no indication in time to save people."
Cars parked on the street were subsumed in piles of brick and concrete. Photo: Getty Images
Officials said two of the dead were women. Hunter College in Manhattan said on its web site that Griselde Camacho, a public safety officer at the school, died in the blast.
News 12, a cable station serving Westchester County north of New York City, reported that a cousin of one of its cameramen also was killed. The station identified her as Carmen Tanco, 67, who was in her apartment during the explosion.
Several children were among the injured, including one who was reported in critical condition.
More than 60 people sought medical attention, and dozens remain hospitalised. Photo: Reuters
Consolidated Edison president John McAvoy said the utility had no record of calls before Wednesday morning complaining of gas odours in the buildings, but some residents of the area said it had been plagued by gas odours.
Ruben Borrero, who lived in one of the destroyed buildings, said residents had reported the overpowering smell of gas Tuesday to fire officials. "As soon as you walked into the front of the hallway ... you could barely get to your door, it was so bad," he said.
New York Times, MCT