8 Confirmed Dead In East Harlem Gas Explosion; Active Scene Remains

Investigation Into Blast Begins; More Than 60 Hurt, Others Still Missing

Explosion Shocked Neighborhood; Air Quality Still A Worry

The sudden explosion rocked the East Harlem neighborhood just after 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, bringing down two, five-story buildings that housed a church, a piano store and more than a dozen apartments.

The blast hurled bricks, glass and other debris across the neighborhood and onto nearby Metro-North tracks and sent flames and thick smoke billowing into the air.

Witnesses said the explosion could be heard up to 40 blocks away.

“It sounded like a bomb,” one witness said.

“The bricks were all over, the smoke was black,” said witness Eldia Duran. “It was bad — really, really bad.”

Cellphone video shot moments after the blast shows some racing away while others, such as Sgt. Rasheem Thomas, of the United States Marine Corps, ran to help those who may have been trapped.

“It’s just second nature that you help people and you worry about yourself last,” he said.

Sgt. Thomas helped free a man trapped in the passenger seat of an SUV, Carrasco reported.

“I got a knife and cut his seat belt. After we cut his seat belt, I asked him if he could move and he said he was wedged. I told him it was going to hurt but I grabbed him, I just started yanking him,” Sgt. Thomas recalled.

The smoky air in the area was also a concern. Many police officers and residents were still wearing face masks Thursday.

“Is it safe to be breathing this?” said Harlem resident Maurice Lenin. “I’m concerned. We live here. We breathe this.”

Iris Liciaga and her 5-year-old son, Bryant, were walking the streets Thursday with face masks.

“I feel scared, because I don’t know what’s going on — if the gas leak is still on. I don’t know what happened,” Liciaga said.

Bryant said he was wearing a mask because “it stinks in here!”

The mayor said Department of Environmental Protection workers were at the scene monitoring air quality. He did caution people in this vicinity to limit exposure by staying inside and if possible, and keep windows closed.

The mayor said the air quality should not cause significant problems for healthy people – but such may not be the case for more vulnerable populations like seniors and children. The explosion site was expected to remain an active scene for several days.

Investigators Focus On Underground Gas Line

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was working on the assumption that the blast was a gas explosion. But agency crews cannot yet get to the scene due to safety issues.

“We are not able to get in up close and personal to begin close examination of the pipe. We’re not able to do that until the FDNY determines that the area is safe,” agency board member Robert Sumwalt said.

Once the NTSB has site access, crews will conduct a pressure test of the pipe, Sumwalt said. But the NTSB has already come to some early conclusions about the low-pressure pipe.

“Running up and down Park Avenue, we’ve got a distribution line, and coming off that distribution line, you have service lines going into the respective buildings,” he said. “That pipe is still intact. That’s unlike the other pipeline accidents that I’ve been to, where the pipe is thrown out of a crater. This pipe is still in the ground.”

The forthcoming pressure test will shed light on the source of the leak, Sumwalt said. As of now, the NTSB has not determined where the gas leak originated, and has not narrowed down whether the leak was in the service pipe rather than coming from a heater or a stove.

Earlier, de Blasio said all the facts won’t be known until a thorough investigation is completed.

“We know there was an explosion but we don’t know everything about the lead up to it,” he said Thursday.

Residents have said they have long complained about gas smells in the neighborhood, but Con Ed said it has only gotten a few calls in the past three years.

Con Ed chief executive officer John McAvoy said “a three-year look for that leak history (uncovered) only two small leaks on customer piping being found – all more than nine months ago.”

He also said there had only been two cases when work had been done on the gas main that runs under Park Avenue between 116th and 117th streets. About 70 feet of piping were replaced along with a water service replacement operation in 2011, and a repair was made to a leak on a coupling along the main in 2004, McAvoy said.

And as recently as Feb. 28, Con Ed said it cleared the block of leaks with its mobile gas detection vehicle.

But Con Edison officials earlier said crews were responding to a report of a gas odor in the area right before the explosion.

Residents said they smelled an odor in the area and the owner of the church said she smelled gas Tuesday night.

“The northwest corner, there was an odor and I went to the store at the corner to let him know in case it was from his building and he said he would look into it,” Carmen Vargas-Rosa said.

Like the NTSB, Con Ed said it is still unclear if the leak was in a company main or inside plumbing installed by a customer.

A gas line was a 125-year-old cast iron pipe, WCBS 880’s Sean Adams reported.

The FDNY also said a check of its records found no instances in the past month of reported gas odors or leaks from tenants of the two buildings that collapsed.

“Maybe we got to get rid of the debris first, we got to make sure that there is nobody else in the area,” FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano said on Thursday.

The Red Cross is also assisting more than 60 residents who were displaced by the blast.

De Blasio said anyone trying to locate loved ones can call 311 and ask for the Unified Victim Identification System.

Check Out These Other Stories From CBSNewYork.com:

blog comments powered by Disqus
Giving Tuesday
Charles Osgood Event

Listen Live