A major explosion caused by a gas leak on Wednesday reduced a pair of New York apartment buildings to rubble, killing at least three people, injuring more than 60 people and blowing out windows for several city blocks.
Mayor Bill de Blasio described the incident as “a tragedy of the worst kind,” saying a number of people were still unaccounted for as firefighters battled to extinguish a subsequent blaze in East Harlem.
The explosion was felt more than a mile away and sent dust billowing into the streets of Manhattan – sparking inevitable reminders for some New Yorkers of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Others said it felt like an earthquake, or thought a train must have derailed from nearby tracks.
Mr de Blasio said: “There was no indication in time to save people. We know we have lost two people already [a third fatality was later confirmed]. There is a tremendous amount of anxiety but, suffice it to say, that every effort is being expended to locate each and every one of these missing individuals.”
He said 15 residential apartments, six in one building and nine in the other, had been destroyed. One of the buildings contained a piano shop on the ground floor, and the other one housed a small church.
At 9.13am a call from a neighbouring apartment building alerted a local energy company to the smell of gas. The explosion came barely 15 minutes later and more than 250 firefighters were sent to the scene.
Robert Santiago, a witness, said: “I thought the world was coming to an end, an earthquake or something like that. Terrible.”
Jennifer Salas, 20, lived in one of the buildings. In tears she told The New York Times that her husband, Jordy Salas, was inside and remained missing.
She said: “There’s six floors in the building; each floor has one apartment. Last night it smelled like gas but then the smell vanished and we all went to sleep.
“We tried to find the source of the gas but since the smell left, we all went to sleep.”
Eusebio Perez, 48, a piano technician who lived on the top floor but was at work, said: “There’s nothing left. A pile of bricks. Nothing’s there.”