3 Dead, Several Missing After Explosion Levels Buildings In East Harlem

Gas Leak Reported Just Before Blast That Also Left At Least 70 Injured

The two collapsed buildings were 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. The building at 1644 Park Ave. housed the Spanish Christian Church, while the building at 1646 Park Ave. housed the Absolute Piano Store and had 15 apartments above.

Explosion Sends Debris Flying Through Neighborhood

It was unclear if anyone was inside at the time of the blast, but Carmen Vargas-Rosa, who owns the church, said some of her tenants were unaccounted for.

“We fear for at least four of our tenants who may have been in the building at the time,” she said. “We can’t reach them on their cell.”

De Blasio’s office said anyone attempting to locate family or loved ones that may have been in the immediate area should contact the Unified Victim Identification System at 311, which is active.

The mayor’s office said crews are searching parts of the debris pile, but other areas of the site are not accessible due to a sinkhole that developed in front of the building due to a subsurface water main break, likely caused by the explosion.

The equipment needed to remove additional debris cannot be brought in until the sinkhole has been mitigated, which could take several hours, the mayor’s office said.

The Red Cross has set up a reception area at P.S. 57 following an explosion and building collapse in Harlem on March 12, 2014 (Credit: Red Cross/WCBS 880)

The Red Cross has set up a reception area at P.S. 57 following an explosion and building collapse in Harlem on March 12, 2014 (Credit: Red Cross/WCBS 880)

The Red Cross set up a reception area with food and water at nearby P.S. 57 — located at 176 E. 115th St. — for affected residents and their families.

The organization said several teams of disaster responders, including mental health professionals, were on the scene.

“Licensed mental health professionals are providing critical emotional support during this tragedy,” the Red Cross said.

Walter Leiva was at the Red Cross reception area. He told Carrasco he hasn’t been able to locate his aunt, who lived in one of the two buildings.

“She’s not there. She’s literally – they telling me my aunt is not there,” Leiva said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), whose district includes the site of the deadly explosions, headed straight to the airport in Washington, D.C. to fly home and be with constituents.

“I could not possibly sleep in Washington knowing of the tragic loss of life and injuries caused by the shocking explosion that occurred in the heart of our District,” Rangel said in a statement “As we continue to pray for the families of those killed or injured in today’s catastrophic explosion, my staff and I are taking immediate action to help the displaced and those in need.”

Rangel said he is working with clergy and other community leaders to assist in relief efforts. They are collecting food and clothing only, while all monetary donations have been directed to the Red Cross.

De Blasio: Gas Leak Caused Explosion

The mayor said the explosion appeared to be caused by a gas leak, saying Con Edison had received a report of a gas odor prior to the explosion.

“This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people,” he said.

Con Ed said it had already sent crews to investigate the reported gas leak when the blast occurred, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.

“The call came in at 9:13 a.m. from a resident who reported smelling gas inside the apartment, but the resident indicated the odor may have been coming from outside the building,” Con Ed spokesman Sydney Alvarez said. “Two Con Edison crews were dispatched at about 9:15 a.m. and arrived just after the explosion occurred.”

Con Ed said the explosion happened at 9:31 a.m.

“All electric and gas service has been shut down between East 116th and East 117th streets on the west side of Park Avenue, as well as on the north side of East 116th Street near Park Avenue, as crews work closely with the FDNY to make the area safe and determine the exact cause of this morning’s explosion,” Con Ed said in a statement released around 4 p.m.

The utility said it has about 75 personnel at the site of the collapse.

Anthony Ferguson, who lives in the neighborhood, said when he heard the explosion, he instantly suspected gas was to blame.

“I told New York City Fire Department five months ago there was a leak in that corner,” Ferguson told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman.

3 Dead, Several Missing After Explosion Levels Buildings In East Harlem

Ruben Barrero, who lived in one of the flattened buildings, said his mother called 311 on Tuesday. But Con Ed President John McAvoy denied having any knowledge of the leak before Wednesday morning.

“Our first indication of any gas leak was at 9:13 this morning,” McAvoy said.

WATCH: Gas Leak Reported Before Blast

Alvarez said the street is served by an eight-inch low-pressure gas main and that crews were checking gas lines and other structures for any possible leaks.

Vargas-Rosa said she also smelled gas Tuesday night.

“Last night when we came out of church, at the corner outside in the street there was a smell of gas,” she said. “I thought it was from the corner store there so I went to the owners and told them and they said they would look into it and then we went home.”

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