A New York apartment building has collapsed in a fiery burst of rubble, and flames spread to two nearby buildings, injuring at least a dozen people and scattering debris across surrounding streets in the heart of downtown Manhattan's fashionable East Village.
The mayor said preliminary evidence suggested a gas-related explosion was to blame.
Orange flames billowed from the blaze on a block near New York University as 120 firefighters converged to fight it. Smoke could be seen and smelled for miles. Investigators were looking into whether there had been a gas leak, and there were some reports of an explosion before the fire.
Firefighters said at least 12 people were hurt, three critically, and other people were being evaluated at the scene. The area is being evacuated, and the city's health department advised residents to keep their windows closed because of the smoke.
The explosion, which occurred shortly after 3pm and sent flames leaping into the sky, rocked the residential area in Manhattan. Bloodied victims ran from the buildings, collapsing on the street, witnesses said.
Three people were critically injured, New York Mayor de Blasio told a news conference near the scene of the blast.
Preliminary evidence indicated it was a gas-related explosion, the mayor said, adding that private gas and plumbing upgrade work had been going on in one of the buildings. He said Con Edison utility inspectors had been on the scene about an hour before the explosion and found the work did not pass inspection.
The blast caused two buildings to collapse, including the one where the explosion occurred, he said. Two adjacent buildings caught fire, he added.
Firefighters were still fighting a blaze in one of the adjacent buildings, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told the late afternoon news conference.
"That building is in danger of possible collapse," Nigro said. "We will be here for a very long night."
The Fire Department declared it a seven-alarm blaze.
Two people suffered burns to their airways, Nigro said.
The buildings on Second Avenue at East Seventh Street are in the East Village, a neighborhood of small businesses, restaurants and apartments.
Moishe Perl, 64, who owns Moishe's Bake Shop nearby said he heard a loud explosion, ran outside and saw the lower floors of a building start to crumble.
"Most of the people were running out of the building and climbing down the fire escape," he said, while others were helped out of windows by passersby.
Ben Mackinnon, 28, said he was drinking coffee in a cafe when he heard an explosion from across the street.
"The explosion was big enough that the door of the cafe blew open," Mackinnon said.
He saw several bloodied men emerge from a sushi restaurant where the explosion appeared to originate, he said,
One of them fell to the pavement, Mackinnon said.
Shameem Noor, a cashier at the Veselka restaurant about a block away, said he also heard the blast and saw three or four people fall to the street.
"People were running and screaming," he said.
The four buildings contain 49 apartments, according to a spokesman for the American Red Cross at the scene. The ground floors were occupied by small eateries.
A relocation center for residents displaced by the blast and fire was set up in a nearby elementary school, said Red Cross spokesman Josh Lockwood.
"There's a lot of people at the scene standing outside asking questions, so we're waiting," he said. "We'll be here through the night."
Adil Choudhury, who lives a block away, ran outside when he heard "a huge boom".
"Already there was smoke everywhere" when he saw the building, he said. "The flames were coming out from the roof. The fire was coming out of every window."
Items from a ground-floor sushi restaurant were blown into a street, and the explosion was so forceful that it blew the door off a cafe across the avenue. Rubble, glass and debris littered pavements.
Crews with utility Con Edison were at the scene and planned to start investigating after firefighters got the blaze under control.
Area resident Paul Schoengold said he was walking about two blocks away when he heard an "incredibly loud" roar.
"Then the fire started. I could see the flames on the roof, and they kept getting higher," shooting perhaps 50 feet into the air, he said.
Other witnesses said a woman scrambled down her fire escape in the moments after the explosion. She stopped on the second floor, afraid to go further, and passers-by climbed up to help get her down.
In the aftermath, one person was lying on the ground, being attended to by two to three passers-by who were holding his head still, a witness said. A woman was sitting on the curb with blood coming down her face, and another woman walked past him with blood on her face, he said.
The fire happened little over a year after a gas explosion in a building in East Harlem killed eight people and injured about 50.