4 Critically Injured Following 7-Alarm Fire On 7th Street And Second Avenue

UPDATED 03/27/15 12:21 a.m.

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A gas explosion ripped through four buildings and ended up leveling three of them, leaving a total of 19 people injured in a bustling section of the East Village Thursday afternoon.

The explosion was reported at around 3:17 p.m. at 7th Street and Second Avenue. Fire crews were on the scene within three minutes, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

“It was very quick; it was very instantaneous – kaboom,” a witness told CBS2’s Valerie Castro.

A total of 19 people were injured in the blast, the FDNY said. Fourteen were civilians, and four were in critical condition. Seven suffered minor injuries, and four were treated at the scene.

Five of the injured were FDNY members. Four were hospitalized and one was treated at the scene.

The injured people were taken to Bellevue Hospital Center, Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center, NewYork Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Lenox Hill Hospital.

Two of the critically injured victims suffered burns to their airways, while another was unconscious following the explosion, Nigro said earlier.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with every one of them and their families. Of course, we are praying that no other individuals are injured and there are no fatalities,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The explosion and resulting fire tore through 119, 121, 123 and 125 Second Ave., which are mixed residential and commercial buildings, de Blasio said. The buildings at 121 and 123 both pancake collapsed, de Blasio said.

Nigro said the façade of the 121 building was blown clear across the street, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.

FDNY video showed the 123 building completely collapsing to the ground.

The building at 119 Second Ave. was also left in danger of collapsing after the fire, Nigro said.

Following the blast, huge sections of the 119 building – which stood five stories high – looked like they had been punched out, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.

By 9 p.m., the 119 building was a ruin with only the front wall still standing, and looked like it could collapse, CBS2’s Tracee Carrasco reported. Only the front wall of the 121 building still stood, and the 123 building was completely leveled.

By 11 p.m., tweets from the scene showed that the 119 and 121 buildings had been completely cleared away. The 125 building remained, but sustained major fire damage.

“We will be here for a very long night,” Nigro said early in the evening.

The fire quickly escalated to seven alarms after it broke out, bringing about 250 firefighters to the scene, according to the FDNY.  A huge column of flame shot up 20 or more feet through the top of the building during the height of the fire.

PHOTOS: Second Avenue Building Explosion

Firefighters arrived on the scene and rushed into the inferno for rescues.

“They, for the first 15 minutes before the building started to collapse, made extremely dangerous searches of these buildings to search for any victims, and were forced out by subsequent collapse of 123 and 121,” Nigro said.

“My thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been impacted by the explosion in Lower Manhattan today. The Department of Public Service is on-site monitoring Con Edison’s response to this incident and will conduct a full investigation to determine the cause of today’s explosion,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. “On behalf of all New Yorkers, I thank the hundreds of first responders who put the safety of others before their own. We will continue to monitor this tragedy and do whatever is needed to support the ongoing response and recovery in the days ahead.”

GAS EYED AS APPARENT CAUSE OF BLAST

Initial indications suggested a plumbing crew may have triggered the blast in 121 Second Ave., de Blasio said.

“To the best of our knowledge, they were working on the gas,” Nigro said.

Con Edison President Craig Ivey said crews from the utility company were evaluating the installation of a meter for new gas service at the building earlier Thursday. The building already had gas service, but was upgrading to a larger service. The new installation did not pass inspection and was not ready for gas to be introduced, Ivey said.

“The work failed our inspection for several reasons, including insufficient spacing for the installation of the meter in the basement,” a statement from the utility company reads.  “A survey conducted yesterday of the gas mains on the block found no leaks.  We continue to work with all agencies on the investigation into the cause, and we are praying for the recovery of all the injured.”

There was no indication of any calls received by the city or Con Edison regarding a gas leak, de Blasio said.

“If people smell gas, they should immediately call 911 or Con Edison,” de Blasio said. “That’s the one thing we know for sure.”

A building explosion in Harlem in March 2014 was caused by a faulty gas line.

Con Edison shut down gas to the area after the blast Thursday.

Sources told CBS2 the NYPD has ruled out any terrorism connection.

The Sushi Park restaurant was located on the ground floor of 121 Second Ave. The 123 building housed the Pommes Frites Belgian cafe and Sam’s Deli and Grocery on its ground floor.

EVACUATIONS, TRAFFIC DISRUPTIONS & HEALTH CONCERNS 

De Blasio urged people to call 311 to check on residents of the buildings affected by the blast.

A reception station was set up by the American Red Cross of Greater New York at P.S. 63, 121 E. 3rd St., to support residents of the building, neighbors and family members, de Blasio said. The Red Cross said a total of 49 residential units were affected by the explosion, CBS2’s Weijia Jiang reported.

There was a large volume of smoke in the area after the blast and fire. Police were handing out masks to residents in the area. Officials urged area residents to keep their windows shut.

The Department of Environmental Protection hazardous materials operation has been set up to determine the environmental and health impact of the explosion, de Blasio said. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has also set up a website on the health risks related to smoke from the explosion.

The Health Department said late Thursday that a plume from the fire affected air quality for a period of time, and that New York State monitors showed a rise in particulates in the East Village peaked around 4 p.m. By the late night hours, surgical masks were no longer necessary, the department said.

“While the Department advised residents to avoid smoke exposure, short-term exposure to elevated particulates did not pose a significant risk to the public,” the department said. “We continue to encourage people who are sensitive to keep away from the immediate area as the fire smolders, and anyone with asthma or heart conditions that experiences shortness of breath or chest pains should seek medical attention immediately.”

The department said the smoke odor will linger far longer than the air pollution from the fire, and does not pose a risk even though it may be uncomfortable for some.

The explosion and collapse forced numerous street closures in the area. Second Avenue was closed from 14th Street to Houston Street. Crosstown traffic on 14th Street and Houston Street was closed between First and Third avenues. There was no northbound traffic on Third Avenue between 14th and Houston streets. Click here to check current traffic conditions.

Buses were rerouted in the area. Subways were not affected.

WITNESSES DESCRIBE EXPLOSION, CONFUSION

A man is seen helping a woman down a fire escape following an apparent gas explosion in the East Village on March 26, 2015. (credit: Ilana Gold/CBS2)

A man is seen helping a woman down a fire escape following an apparent gas explosion in the East Village on March 26, 2015. (credit: Ilana Gold/CBS2)

Pete Manchini, who lives in the 121 Second Ave. building, told Kozar that the five-story walk-up building has four apartments. He lives in one unit with roommates and said the building had been renovated just this past summer.

“We were the first people to live in it. We’ve only been living in it since August. It’s pretty unfortunate,” he said.

He said he had contacted his roommates, who were not home at the time, and his landlord.

“You never really think that it’s going to be your building,” Manchini said. “I started getting a flood of text messages then I realized that it was mine.”

“There was a loud explosion that shook the whole block, windows shook and when we walked out to look and investigate the whole building on Second Avenue and Seventh was blown out,” Brandon Boudwin, who works at nearby Anthony Aiden Opticians, told 1010 WINS.

James Cole was in his apartment not fully dressed, when all of a sudden, the explosion shook the building, 1010 WINS’ Gary Baumgarten reported.

He described what he saw when he ran out onto the street.

“Glass, bits of building, you know – people were injured in between, obviously. There was a man who looked to be unconscious or just barely conscious; a man with a huge gash across his eye. He was bleeding pretty profusely and was sitting down. People were helping him.”

Another witness, Tom Haynes, said he lives directly across Second Avenue in a building that faces 7th Street. He said he heard an explosion that was “much louder than you’d expect from a loud firework.”

Haynes said he looked out the window and saw people “looking horrified, frankly.”

He said he ran downstairs and turned the corner, and saw that the first- and second-floor façade of Sushi Park on the ground floor of the 121 building had been blown out. He also saw flames and rising smoke.

Haynes said he went to the top of the building and saw the flames break through the roof as the smoke turned black. Soon afterward, police evacuated all the nearby buildings, police said.

Yolanda was just a few doors down and the first thing she saw was people running for their lives.

“The debris was on the corner, the whole thing blew. If anyone was in there, my lord have mercy,” she told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman.

Kamara Kananeer was on 8th Street shopping when she said she heard a boom, felt shaking and saw people running.

“No one knew what was going on, but I knew everyone felt it because people were coming out of their stores and buildings asking what was going on,” she told WCBS 880.

Kananeer said she didn’t smell gas when she was shopping, but did she once got closer to the scene.

Several businesses near the scene were also closed following the explosion. A performance of “Stomp” at the Orpheum Theater across the street was canceled Tuesday night due to the collapse.

ABOUT THE BUILDINGS
The 121 Second Ave. building dates back to 1886, according to city documents. It was a Queen Anne-style building constructed of orange brick, terra cotta and masonry, and featured engaged pilasters with dogtooth and other raised brickwork and brick corbels.

The building also featured inset terra cotta panels throughout, and masonry bands with hooded lintels.

The front wall of the 121 building was removed from the first and second stories in 1922, and some architectural details were also removed from the roofline, the city said.

In 1855, a previous structure – possibly a house – at 121 Second Ave. was believed to have been the home of the mayor at the time – presumably Mayor Fernando Wood, the city said.

The 123 Second Ave. building was built around the same time, the city said.