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East Harlem Neighborhood Gripped With Fear Following Explosion, Collapse Of 2 Buildings

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Billowing smoke, cranes are seen near the scene of the East Harlem explosion at 116th Street and Park Avenue, March 12, 2014. (credit: Tom Kaminski/WCBS 880)

Billowing smoke, cranes are seen near the scene of the East Harlem explosion at 116th Street and Park Avenue, March 12, 2014. (credit: Tom Kaminski/WCBS 880)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — An explosion and fire that caused the collapse of two buildings in East Harlem Wednesday morning has sent shock waves of emotion through the neighborhood.

As 1010 WINS’ Gary Baumgarten reported, Ruben Barrero lived in the apartment building on Park Avenue for all of his life.

“I’ve never lost everything in a matter of a few minutes before. So I don’t know what’s next. Thank God I have a lot of friends and family looking out, calling to check up on us — which is a beautiful thing, but again, we have nothing,” Barrero said.

The East Harlem resident told Baumgarten his mother smelled natural gas Tuesday night and dialed 311. He said he doesn’t know what happened after that, until the building blew up hours later.

“Well my mother called yesterday – 311. This was yesterday, yesterday night. (What was their response?) Just you know, file a complaint about it and then other than that, I remember the last time we called the landlord and I think her response was ‘I’ll be there in an hour to check it out,'” Barrero said.

Fortunately, Barrero, his mother, and his sister were not home at the time of the explosion.

Piano technician Colin Paterson was inside the building at 1646 Park Avenue when there was an explosion and the building collapsed (Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880)

Piano technician Colin Paterson was inside the building at 1646 Park Avenue when there was an explosion and the building collapsed (Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880)

WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond spoke with a man who worked at the piano repair shop that was destroyed in the building collapse.

Piano technician Colin Paterson said he was beginning his day at the Absolute Piano store located at 1646 Park Ave. when the explosion happened.

“I was on the ground floor watching TV and there was a just a massive explosion and before you know it the building was on top of me,” he told Diamond.

And he said so were the pianos, which created a void.

“The pianos flew out off the ground and actually on the side and that probably helped me too,” Paterson said. “There was no more building. I only saw a fireman in the back.”

Emergency responders took Paterson to a hospital where he was treated for head trauma.

“I don’t think it really hit me yet to tell you the truth,” Paterson said.

Josh Marquez told Diamond it felt like an earthquake in his apartment and he lives blocks away.

“I thought a bomb went off. I thought about that plane that’s missing. A lot of things went through my head,” Marquez said.

The NYPD said there is no indication of terrorism at this point. There was fear though, and confusion as first responders raced to put out the massive fire.

“The trucks were trying to put the fire out while the firemen were trying to go through the debris, looking for any survivors. The debris is from one side of Park Avenue all the way to the other side,” witness Kathy Smith said.

The smoke was thick for hours and surgical masks were passed out to make it easier for people to breathe, Diamond reported.

Panic and fear rushed through the minds of many of the residents living and working near the explosion, CBS 2’s John Slattery reported.

“We heard this explosion from our office. The building had shook for a couple of seconds,” said witness Lermond Mayes.

As the number of casualties was still being tabulated, rescue workers were faced with an incredible pile of rubble. Water pouring on the fire for hours produced a constant plume of smoke that drifted to the west and engulfed Harlem for blocks, Slattery reported.

The explosion and fire in the two-five story buildings, left a pile of debris some two-and-a-half stories high, and damaged nearby buildings.

“The window blew up from the pressure when the explosion came. You can see all the broken glass and my supervisor, he got cut up,” said witness Wilfredo Cruz.

Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano said fire marshals are on site and will determine exactly what sparked the blast. The FBI is on the scene and the National Transportation Safety Board said it is sending a team to help in the investigation.

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