Gas Explosion in East Harlem Kills Eight, Injures 54

By Joanna Plucinska, Anand Katakam, Steven Rosenbaum, Stav Ziv, Niina Heikkinen, Louise Dewast and Annie Wu

A massive explosion caused by a gas leak rocked East Harlem Wednesday morning. Two buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue at East 116th Street collapsed; eight people are dead and at least 54 have been injured.

Utility company Con Edison said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the block was last inspected for gas leaks on February 28, less than two weeks before the explosion. There were no leaks found at the time.

As of Thursday, 89 residences in seven buildings remained evacuated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference. He stressed that evacuation order was in place not because of any structural issues with the buildings, but because gas lines were still shut off and there was no heat. Sixty-six people were being sheltered at a Salvation Army on East 125th Street, according to de Blasio.

The explosion and subsequent five-alarm fire occurred at 9:31 Wednesday morning. First responders arrived on the scene two minutes later.  More than 200 firefighters worked to put out the fire, de Blasio said at a news conference from the scene at noon Wednesday.

“There was no warning in advance,” the mayor told reporters.  “The only indication of danger came about 15 minutes earlier when a gas leak was reported to Con Edison.”

A spokesman for Con Edison confirmed it received reports of a smell of gas in the area and was on the scene responding to the complaint around the time of the incident.

“Once again we have been shown what our first responders are capable of doing under very difficult circumstances,” the mayor added.

The neighborhood quickly filled with smoke after the explosions and helicopters hovered overhead as firefighters tried to put out the fire.  Many witnesses reported hearing a loud explosion.

“When I woke up, the window was broken,” said resident Sarwar Hussein, who was evacuated from a building a block away after the explosion.  “It was all over my blanket.”

Firefighters and onlookers shield their faces from thick smoke in East Harlem. An explosion rocked the neighborhood Wednesday morning after reports of a gas odor in the area. (Joanna Plucinska/NY City Lens)

Firefighters and onlookers shield their faces from thick smoke in East Harlem. An explosion rocked the neighborhood Wednesday morning after reports of a gas odor in the area. (Joanna Plucinska/NY City Lens)

Alhassane Diallo, a taxi driver who lives at 75 East 116th Street just around the corner from the explosion, thought something smelled odd when he left for his shift at 5:30 a.m. He got news of the explosion while en route to LaGuardia Airport.

“I really panicked,” Diallo said as he tried to get in touch with his wife. He wasn’t sure if she’d left for work on schedule at 8 a.m. When he finally got in touch with her, he was relieved that she was safe. There was no damage to their apartment, but she was not allowed to enter the building.

Many of the injured were taken to Harlem Hospital Center, where a spokesman said the hospital had received 13 patients, including three minors, one of them in critical condition.  Two children and ten adults, ranging  from 20 to 79 years of age, are listed in stable condition.

The building at 1644 had six units, while 1646 had nine, according to Acting Buildings Commissioner Thomas Fariello.

Reverend Dominick Reyes, the head pastor of A New Beginning International Ministry at 118 St. and 3rd Avenue, went to the scene to help. He is a member of the NYPD Clergy Liaison Program with the 25th Precinct Police, where religious leaders work closely with the police department to assist the community, especially in times of crisis.

Reyes said one of the buildings near the scene on 116th Street was a church, though nobody was hurt. He will extend his support to the families affected by the explosion, hosting them for dinner Thursday night.

There are air quality concerns in the immediate site of the collapse, de Blasio said. Beyond that area–which has been cordoned off–the air should be safe.

The Red Cross set up a makeshift reception center in P.S. 57’s second-floor gym on 115th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, where people can seek treatment, information, and support.

The explosion hindered transportation on the Metro-North Railroad, which suspended service for much of the day on the New Haven Line because of debris on the tracks.

Connie Yeager was on her way into the city from Easton, Conn. for a doctor’s appointment when her train halted at 125th Street.

“We could see the smoke from the station, but we didn’t know what was going on,” Yeager said. Hundreds of people were then asked to evacuate. They made their way into the city by subway and cabs in lieu of the train.

By rush hour, service on Metro North’s New Haven Line had been restored, but commuters should expect delays, according to the MTA. Bob Bria, who commutes from Fairfield, Conn. to work at HSBC Bank on 5th Avenue, predicted his return trip would take several hours.

Additional reporting contributed by Daniel Mescon, Shwanika Narayan, Younjoo Sang and  Lucia De Stefani