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Investigations Into East Harlem Explosion Under Way

Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave in Harlem   (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave in Harlem (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Several investigations have been launched following an explosion and fire that caused two five-story buildings to collapse, killing at least three people and injuring more than 70.

Nine others remain missing as crews search through the rubble at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave., according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.

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.

Mayor de Blasio said the explosion appeared to be caused by a gas leak.

Con Edison said it had received a report of a gas odor just prior to the explosion and had dispatched crews to investigate, who arrived just after the explosion happened.

“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.”

Many in the neighborhood have claimed they had previously smelled a gas odor in the area, some of whom said they reported it to 311.

Ruben Barrero, who lived in one of the flattened buildings, said his mother called 311 on Tuesday, WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman. He said the building reeked of gas for days.

“The first time it was unbearable. Like walking in the building you wanted to walk directly out, it was that strong,” Barrero said.

But Con Ed President John McAvoy said the utility didn’t know of the leak until this morning.

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

Carmen Vargas-Rosa, who owns the church, 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.”

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the agency will construct a timeline of the events. The investigation will include Con Edison’s call logs, Sumwalt said.

“We’ll be looking at their call system to see how they handle complaints – phone calls reporting the odor of gas,” Sumwalt said.

As 1010 WINS’ Gary Baumgarten reported, the NTSB is involved in the investigation because the transportation of natural gas is part of its responsibility.

“We also have the statutory responsibility to investigate accidents involving all modes of transportation, including pipeline and the transportation of hazardous materials,” Sumwalt said.

The NTSB will also be investigating the pipes that were used to transport the natural gas, Baumgarten reported.

“We’ve had a longstanding concern about cast iron pipe and we are certainly looking at that. Just this morning we had a briefing to our staff talking about a pipeline accident in Birmingham, Ala. that did involve cast iron pipe,” Sumwalt said.

Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno told 1010 WINS’ Al Jones the fire marshal will determine the point of origin and the ignition trigger.

Meanwhile, Con Edison said it also launched an investigation, spokesman Bob McGee told Jones.

Con Ed plans “to bring in a camera to examine the main to determine where there might have been a problem,” McGee said.

McGee reiterated McAvoy’s statement that Con Edison did not receive a report of the gas odor prior to Wednesday morning just before the blast.

“We had done street surveys on the 10th of Feburary and also on the 28th of February, but it didn’t reveal anything,” McGee said.

Residents told Jones at times the odor of gas was so powerful in the buildings that they could barely stand it.

Con Edison said all electric and gas service was 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 its crews work with the FDNY to make the area safe.

The FDNY said it will remain at the site throughout the night and well into the next several days to secure the scene and search for those who remain missing.

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