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New York police probe deadly Harlem blast as rescuers continue search

© AFP

Video by Sanam SHANTYAEI

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2014-03-13

New York rescue workers continued to search for victims and survivors in the rubble of two flattened apartment blocks in East Harlem overnight Wednesday as high winds and driving rain threatened to hinder their investigation.

The five-storey apartment blocks on Park Avenue in East Harlem were levelled within minutes on Wednesday morning when a powerful explosion triggered by a gas leak tore through the buildings.

Just 15 minutes earlier, gas supplier Con Edison had received a phone call from a neighbouring resident complaining of a strong smell of gas. The energy supplier immediately dispatched two officers to the scene, but by the time they arrived, the the explosion had already gone off.

"There was no indication in time to save people," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday.

Seven people were confirmed killed in the blast  – Griselde Camacho, 44, a university security guard, Carmen Tanco, 67, and five other people who have yet to be identified.

More than 60 people were also injured, including three children. One of them, a 15-year-old boy, was reported in critical condition with burns, broken bones and internal injuries. One other person was also in critical condition, the New York City Fire Department reported.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Some nine other people who were thought to have been on site at the time of the blast were still missing on Thursday morning.

With the fire largely contained by 5 p.m., emergency workers began the gruelling process of looking for survivors and victims, setting up floodlights and cranes to help pick their way through the mountain of rubble left by the massive blast. Workers used thermal imaging cameras to seek out bodies, and pockets of fire, as temperatures dropped to near freezing.

‘Like being in another country’

The magnitude of the explosion became apparent as local residents, some as far as a mile away, described the sensation of the blast and what happened after the buildings came down.

Jay Virgil, 30, was at home in her apartment opposite the buildings when the explosion went off.

“It blew my fan out of the window and it blew me out of the bed onto the floor,” she told FRANCE 24. “I ran out of the front door. When I came out of my building there were people lying lifeless on the street.

“There was a car bumper in front of my front door, there were huge pieces of glass everywhere,” she said. “It was unbelievable; it was like being in another country.”

Con Edison in the spotlight

Electricity and natural gas supplier Con Edison found itself in the spotlight after the blast as authorities sought an explanation for the incident.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Wednesday that investigators would focus on Con Edison's response to the gas leak that caused it.

"We want to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened... to make sure something like this never happens again," NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters after arriving on the scene on Wednesday evening.

A Google Street View image of the two buildings destroyed in the explosion, 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue in East Harlem. The ground floors of the residential buildings served as a church and a piano shop.

Jazmen Virgil, whose wife was thrown out of bed by the blast, told FRANCE 24 that the couple had smelt gas “weeks before this happened”.

A tenant of one of the destroyed buildings told AP that a number of residents had complained to their landlord about the smell of gas, which he described as “unbearable”.

But Con Edison press officer Alfonso Quiroz told FRANCE 24 that there had been no complaints prior to the phone call on Wednesday morning concerning the smell of gas in the area. Quiroz said that some 75 Con Ed staff had visited the site following the blast.

In an online statement released on Wednesday the utility said they would “conduct a thorough investigation in conjunction with all appropriate agencies to determine the cause of this tragedy”.

Date created : 2014-03-13

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    Deadly explosion levels New York buildings

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