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Explosion in New York City kills 7

6 a.m. update Mar. 13: 

Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled four additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two New York City apartment buildings, raising the death toll to at least seven from a gas leak-triggered explosion that reduced the area to a pile of smashed bricks, splinters and mangled metal.

The explosion Wednesday morning in Manhattan's East Harlem neighbourhood injured more than 60 people, with searchers still trying to locate others a day later. Crews used generator-powered floodlights and thermal imaging cameras to identify heat spots — bodies or pockets of fire — at the site on Park Avenue and 116th Street. Police guarding the scene wore surgical masks and neighbourhood residents covered faces with scarfs amid the thick, acrid air.

"This is a difficult job, a challenging job," Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said. He said it was "a very terrible and traumatic scene."


9:00 p.m. update 

A gas leak triggered an earthshaking 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-story 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 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 about 9:30 a.m., 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.

Another of the people who died was Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist.

The identity of the third victim wasn't immediately disclosed.

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 Feb. 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 120 feet (37 metres) 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.


5:02 p.m. update:

A third person has been confirmed killed by an explosion that flattened two New York City apartment buildings. Nine occupants of the buildings are unaccounted for.

A gas leak triggered the explosion Wednesday morning on Park Avenue and 116th Street in East Harlem. The blast also injured more than 60 people. At least three of the injured were children.

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.

Authorities say the fiery blast erupted about 9:30 a.m., around 15 minutes after a neighbouring resident reported smelling gas.


11 a.m. update: 

The New York City fire department says more than a dozen people are still missing after an explosion levelled two apartment buildings, killing two people.

The department also says more than 20 others were injured, including two with life-threatening injuries.


8:20 a.m. update:

A New York City apartment building has exploded in huge flames and billowing black smoke, leading to the collapse of at least one building and 16 injuries.

The New York City fire department says 15 people were treated for minor injuries at the scene. Another person with serious trauma was transported to Harlem Hospital.

Residents heard a large explosion near Park Avenue and 116th Street in East Harlem around 9 a.m. Wednesday. One five-story building was reduced to rubble, and a second building also is heavily damaged.

Sidewalks for blocks around are littered with broken glass from shattered storefront and apartment windows. Witnesses say the blast was so powerful it knocked groceries off the shelves of nearby stores.

The site is next to Metro-North commuter railroad tracks. Train service is halted to and from Grand Central Terminal.

A neighbouring building was severely damaged. The cause of the blast was unclear.

Police, some wearing gas masks and medical masks, handed out medical masks to residents and onlookers because of the thick white smoke that shrouded the area.

Eoin Hayes, 26, said the explosion shook his entire apartment building in Harlem at about 9:30 a.m. He 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," Hayes said. "You could feel the vibrations going through the building."

Hayes lives less than 10 blocks from where the explosion happened. He said the fire consumed one building and then moved on to another building adjacent to it, though about 40 minutes later the flames had subsided and there was mostly just smoke. Both buildings appeared to be residential.

"I ran to the window and saw the fire and the smoke going up and the sirens start," Hayes said.

The fire department said it sent nearly 170 members to the scene.


The New York City Fire Department says it is investigating reports of a possible building collapse in Manhattan. Early reports suggest that 11 people have sustained minor injuries.

The fire department said the building is located in East Harlem, between 114th and 117th streets.  A local TV station is reporting that residents heard a loud explosion in the building around 9 a.m.

TV footage showed heavy smoke billowing from the building and firefighters blasting water on the site from extended ladders. It’s unclear what type of building is involved or whether it was occupied.

New York City firefighters respond to the fire in Manhattan, Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

CNN reported that nearby buildings are being evacuated.

Images from the scene also showed rubble partially covering a parked vehicle.

The Canadian Press

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