Death toll from New York blast, building collapse rises to seven

Around 60 people were injured and several people missing after a huge gas explosion destroyed two residential blocks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 9:55pm

The death toll from an explosion that collapsed two New York apartment buildings after an apparent gas leak rose to seven on Thursday, and the number of injured is close to 60, police said.

New York City Police Detective Marc Nell said a seventh victim of Wednesday’s blast was pulled from the buildings’ rubble, adding that no one had died at a hospital.

A search continued for survivors and trapped bodies among the still-smoking rubble of two adjoining buildings that housed 15 apartments on a largely residential Upper Manhattan block at East 116th Street and Park Avenue.

The blast, which scattered debris across nearby rooftops, brought down the adjoining five-story buildings, with a total of 15 apartments, at about 9.30am on a largely residential Upper Manhattan block at East 116th Street and Park Avenue.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the incident “a tragedy of the worst kind” because the smell of gas was detected “but there was no indication in time to save people.”

His office said nine residents from the two collapsed buildings were still unaccounted as night fell.

The new, fifth fatality was a body pulled from the rubble, the fire department said early on Thursday, CNN and other news outlets reported. The death toll was described as likely to rise.

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 neighbourhood.

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.

Watch: Several dead, dozens injured as New York buildings collapse

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.

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 odour.

“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.”

I thought the world was coming to an end, an earthquake

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 odour 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.”

Metro-North Railroad, which had shut down train traffic moving through Manhattan while it cleared debris from the tracks, announced in late afternoon it had restored all commuter rail service through the area.

Two women were confirmed early in the day as having been killed, and the body of a third woman was found in the rubble later in the day, police said. Late on Wednesday night, search teams pulled the body of a fourth victim from the site, fire department spokesman Khalid Baylor said.

"We are confirming a fourth fatality," he said. "But there are no details on the age or gender of this individual."

One of the victims was identified as Griselde Camacho, a campus public safety officer for Hunter College in East Harlem, according to a message posted on the school’s website. Her age was not given.

As many as 36 other people were listed as injured, most of them suffering cuts, broken bones and smoke inhalation, authorities said.

Most of those injured suffered cuts, broken bones and smoke inhalation, authorities said.

At least three children were among the injured. Two of them were treated for minor injuries and released, while a third was in critical condition, hospital officials told a news conference.

Neighbours said they thought an earthquake was shaking them from their beds and breakfast tables. The explosion, which could be heard from blocks away, shattered windows around the neighbourhood.

US President Barack Obama was briefed on the collapse and sent his condolences to the victim 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.

Mainline train services in and out of Grand Central terminal were suspended indefinitely as a result of the incident next to its tracks.

Hundreds of police and firefighters were on site with emergency vans and fire trucks, as a dense column of smoke spewed into the sky over the Metro-North railway line.

Witnesses compared the sound of the explosion to an earthquake and what they saw to a war zone, after the blast ripped through their bustling city routine.

Jazzmen Arzuaga, 30, said she was at work at a hospital when her wife rang to tell her what had happened.

"She called me and told me 'Oh my God, you need to come home now, it's like world war two, people are dying, there was an explosion.' I just literally ran," she said.

The couple live across the street from the blast.

Arzuaga's wife Jay Virgo, also 30, said she was lying in bed when the blast blew her onto the floor.

"I jumped up and I just put my coat on and I ran out of the door," she said at the scene.

"I ran out of the building and I looked across the street and there were couple of people lying on the floor. There were glass everwhere, huge pieces of glass. It just looked crazy."

Witness Robert Santiago told CBS that he was sleeping when suddenly the explosion shook his bed and the floor.

"It smells very bad out here. It smells like rubble," he said.

"I thought the world was coming to an end, an earthquake or something like that. Terrible," he added.

A man who lives several blocks from the scene of the blast said he heard the explosion, 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," Eoin Hayes, 26, said. "You could feel the vibrations going through the building."

Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press