NEW YORK — Two New York City buildings collapsed Wednesday in an explosion believed to be caused by a gas leak, killing two people, injuring at least 36, and setting off a search for more victims feared trapped in the rubble, officials said.
The blast, which scattered debris across nearby rooftops, brought down the neighboring five-story buildings, with a total of 15 apartments, at about 9:30 a.m. on a largely residential Upper Manhattan block at East 116th Street and Park Avenue.
Clouds of thick smoke billowed from the rubble of the apartment buildings that sat above a ground-level church and a piano store in a largely Latino working-class neighborhood. Officials declined to give a number of people still missing.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rushed to the scene in East Harlem, where a cascade of twisted and burnt metal blocked the sidewalk and covered parked cars, said preliminary information showed the explosion was caused by a gas leak.
Officials at the news conference said the blast occurred 15 minutes after a resident in an adjacent building called Con Edison to complain of a gas odor.
Edward Foppiano, Con Ed’s vice president for gas operations, said that while the utility could not say for certain what caused the explosion, it was treating the incident as a gas leak. The utility most recently responded to customer complaints about a gas odor in the area last May, but the problem had been resolved, Foppiano said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the “gas explosion and subsequent fire.”
Metro-North Railroad, which had shut down train traffic moving through Manhattan while it cleared debris from the tracks announced, late Wednesday afternoon it had restored all commuter train traffic passing through the area.
Hundreds of firefighters were scouring the mounds of debris for survivors and trapped bodies, and de Blasio said there were “a number” of people missing.
“This is a tragedy because there was no time to warn people ahead of time,” de Blasio said. “We are expending every effort to locate each and every loved one.”
Two women were killed and at least 36 people injured, one of them critically, with most suffering cuts, broken bones and smoke inhalation, authorities said. One of the deceased had not yet been identified, while the second woman’s name was being withheld pending notification of family.
Neighbors said they thought an earthquake was shaking them from their beds and breakfast tables. The explosion, which could be heard from blocks away, shattered windows around the neighborhood.
“I heard a big explosion. Boom!” said Aisha Watts, who lives in the building next door.
“The walls started crumbling down. The windows were gone,” said Watts. The mother of three said she feared she would die but was soon rescued by a neighbor who kicked down the jammed door to her home.
Six blocks away, Robert Pauline’s apartment was rocked by the explosion.
“All of a sudden the whole building shook. We had no idea what was going on,” said the 56-year-old Columbia University data processor.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the collapse and sent his condolences to the victims’ families and his support to first responders at the scene.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by this incident,” the White House said in a statement.
Crowds of residents, their faces covered with protective scarves and masks, filled the sidewalks of surrounding streets, which were blocked off with yellow police tape.
“It’s a very active scene. It’s a very chaotic scene,” said Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella.
Fire trucks used high cranes to spray blasts of water into the rubble, as dozens of ambulances and police cruisers with flashing lights swarmed the scene.
During the morning commute, trains were held at nearby stations because of debris on the tracks and passengers were ordered off the Metro-North Railroad cars at the Fordham stop in the Bronx, passengers said.