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New York - A gas leak triggered an earth-shaking explosion that flattened two apartment buildings on Wednesday, killing at least three people, injuring more than 60 and leaving nine missing. A 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 equipment, including back hoes and a bulldozer, arrived to clear the mountain of debris where the two five-storey East Harlem buildings stood. Flood lights were in place. Thermal imaging cameras were at the ready to identify heat spots - bodies or pockets of fire.
The recovery was facing hardship in the form of the weather, which was expected to dip below freezing with rain. Some parts of the debris pile were inaccessible because of a sinkhole caused by a subsurface water main break, officials said.
The fiery blast, on Park Avenue at 116th Street, not far from the edge of Central Park, erupted at 9.30am, around 15 minutes after a neighbouring resident reported smelling gas, authorities said. The Con Edison utility said it immediately sent 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, cast a plume of smoke over the skyline 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 among the dead.
Hunter College identified one as Griselde Camacho, a security officer who had worked for the college since 2008.
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 some people were unaccounted for, but cautioned they 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 few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odour, 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, who 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 odours or leaks.
Edward Foppiano said the block was last checked on February 28 as part of a regular leak survey, and no problems were detected.
City records show that the building Borrero lived in was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu. A phone number listed for Muramatsu rang unanswered.
City building records don't show any work in progress at either address, but the building owned by the Spanish Christian Church had obtained permits and installed 37m of gas pipe last June.
Con Ed said it remains to be seen whether the leak was in a company main or in customer-installed inside plumbing. The gas main that serves the area was made of plastic and cast iron, and the iron dated to 1887, Foppiano said.
A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived in the evening to investigate. The agency investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters.
The tragedy brought the neighbourhood to a standstill as police set up barricades to keep residents away. Thick, acrid smoke made people's eyes water. Some people wore surgical masks, while others held their hands or scarves over their faces. Witnesses said the blast was so powerful it knocked groceries off store shelves.
The Metro-North Railroad, which serves 280 000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut, suspended service to and from Grand Central Terminal, one of the nation's busiest commuter hubs, for much of the day while the debris was removed from its tracks, the structural integrity of the elevated structure was checked and test trains were run past the explosion site to see if vibrations would endanger the rescue effort. Service resumed late in the afternoon. - Sapa-AP