Heavy smoke pours from the debris as the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) responds to a 5-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave. Credit: Getty Images
Federal authorities are investigating after a gas leak sparked a large explosion in East Harlem Wednesday morning, killing at least three people and sending the surrounding area into chaos when two buildings were destroyed.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which oversees pipeline incidents as part of America's transportation system, will investigate the explosion. ConEd operations, including response to the explosion, and the gas pipelines in the area will be probed.
"We want to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened," NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt said.
The blast, near 116th Street, collapsed 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. around 9:30 a.m., injuring dozens, including three children, officials said. Nine occupants in the building were unaccounted for as of Wednesday night, according to city officials.
One of the three people who died in the explosion was Griselde Camacho, a public safety officer with Hunter College, according to school officials.
"This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people," Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a briefing near from the explosion site.
The deafening blast shattered windows and launched debris onto elevated Metro-North Railroad tracks across the street, partially shutting down train service for several hours.
Officials said the blast appears to have been caused by a gas leak reported at 9:13 a.m. from a resident of a nearby apartment, 1652 Park Ave. Though ConEd crews were dispatched to the scene, "the explosion occurred before that team could arrive," de Blasio said.
The fire department received a call of the explosion around 9:30 a.m., officials said. At least 39 units, including around 250 firefighters, fought flames after the blast.
Blocks surrounding the buildings were submerged in ash and smoke. Witnesses said locals ran from the explosion on streets littered with car parts and glass.
Across the street from the buildings, the powerful blast threw a window fan across Jay Virgo's bedroom.
"It blew me out of my bed," said Virgo, 30. "I thought maybe a car crashed into the building."
Outside, Virgo said she saw several people lying on the ground in front of the buildings. "They looked lifeless," she said.
Virgo and other locals crowded near police lines in the hours after the blast, waiting for news of loved ones and when they would be allowed back home.
The majority of the fire was contained by 3 p.m., with firefighters continuing to battle pockets of isolated flames into the afternoon. Firefighters then began removing debris and combing the wreckage for victims, fire officials said.
As of Wednesday evening, nine occupants in the buildings were still missing, according to the mayor's office. The search was expected to continue through the night.
"It's going to be a long extended operation," FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano said.
Reinaldo Rosario, 48, said he and his girlfriend searched several hours for her brother, who lived in one of the buildings, before being reunited.
"I'm shaking," he said.
Virgo and other residents described smelling gas near the site of the explosion in the past. Officials said they were not aware of any recent gas leak complaints. A gas-related work permit was issued for 1644 Park Ave. last year and completed in June, according to the Department of Buildings.