Officials cite single complaint minutes before blast as only warning of fatal East Harlem explosion

A victim is evacuated by emergency personal near an apparent building explosion fire and collapse in the Harlem section of New York City, March 12, 2014. Credit: Reuters
A victim is evacuated by emergency personal near an apparent building explosion fire and collapse in the Harlem section of New York City, March 12, 2014. Credit: Reuters

A lone call to Con Edison some 15 minutes before an explosion leveled two East Harlem buildings Wednesday was the only warning authorities received before the fatal blast, officials said Thursday.

At least eight people, including four men and three women, died and approximately 40 people were injured during the explosion, officials said. As of Thursday night, several people were still missing.

Two buildings, at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. near 116th Street, were destroyed after the 9:31 a.m. blast, which officials believe was sparked by a gas leak.

Though some locals reported a longtime smell of gas in the neighborhood, officials said the only recent complaint came to Con Edison at 9:13 a.m. that morning. The caller, a resident of an adjacent apartment, even admitted to smelling gas the night before but failed to alert authorities.

“Now he didn’t call the night before, but he included that in the conversation when he reported the call at 9:13,” Con Edison CEO John McAvoy said during a briefing Thursday. He added that this indicates the leak “likely started well before the 9:13 call.”

Con Edison said that only two gas leak calls, in May 2013 and January 2011, were received on the Park Avenue block in the last three years. Both calls were related to internal equipment and repaired the day they were received.

The fire department also cited no 911 or 311 calls relative to a gas leak in the last 30 days at either collapsed building or in the surrounding area.

Responding to the 9:13 a.m. report on Wednesday, Con Edison crews arrived on scene after the buildings began to collapse, typical of the company’s 22-minute average response time for normal calls.

“It was categorized as a low priority and it was a low priority,” McAvoy said after the briefing.

If Con Edison received more than one call reporting the smell of gas, the company would have sent the complaint to the fire department rather than dispatching its own teams. Other factors that upgrade gas calls to emergency status include reports of additional problems, like flickering lights.

“Had calls come in earlier than that [9:13 a.m. report], the likelihood of us being able to address it is good because we address calls like this all the time,” McAvoy said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials urged New Yorkers to report the smell of gas to Con Edison or the city, even if they don’t think it’s an emergency.

“A gas leak call is not treated as business as usual,” de Blasio said.

To file a report, call 311 or ConEd, at 800-75-CONED (26633).

Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter @AnnaESanders


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