A seventh person has died after two New York City buildings collapsed on Wednesday in an explosion apparently caused by a gas leak. The number of those injured in the incident is now “close to 60”, police spokesman Detective Marc Nell said, with several more victims feared trapped in the rubble.
Nell also said the seventh victim of Wednesday’s blast was pulled from the buildings’ rubble, adding that no one had died at a hospital.
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. 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 neighborhood.
Pockets of fire and heat smoldered 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.
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.
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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 odor.
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 odor 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.”
Harlem disaster seems to involve two buildings, not one: 1644 & 1646 Park Ave., housing a church and piano store. pic.twitter.com/6ejS0VAytU
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About sixty other people were listed during the day as injured, most of them suffering cuts, broken bones and smoke inhalation, authorities said.
At least three children were among those hurt. Two were treated for minor injuries and released, while a third was in critical condition, hospital officials told a news conference.
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“This is a tragedy because there was no time to warn people ahead of time,” de Blasio said. “We are expending every effort to locate each and every loved one.”
President Barack Obama was briefed on the collapse and sent his condolences to the victims’ families and his support to first responders at the scene.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by this incident,” the White House said in a statement.
Crowds of residents, their faces covered with protective scarves and masks, filled the sidewalks of surrounding streets, which were blocked off with yellow police tape.
“It’s a very active scene. It’s a very chaotic scene,” said Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella.
Fire trucks used high cranes to spray blasts of water into the rubble, as dozens of ambulances and police cruisers with flashing lights swarmed the scene.