RESIDENTS complained repeatedly about “unbearable” gas smells in one of the two New York residential blocks destroyed in a blast on Wednesday, it has emerged, as workers pulled four more bodies from the rubble, bringing the death toll to at least seven.
The explosion in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighbourhood injured more than 60 people, with searchers still trying to trace others. Crews used generator-powered floodlights and thermal imaging cameras to identify heat spots – bodies or pockets of fire – at the site on Park Avenue and 116th Street.
Police guarding the scene wore surgical masks and residents covered faces with scarfs to prevent them breathing the thick, acrid air.
Firefighters perched on surrounding rooftops yesterday morning, dousing the still smouldering debris from above, causing huge clouds of thick smoke that swirled over Park Avenue.
Heavy machinery with steel pincers picked up the smouldering debris, first depositing it on the pavement, then hoisting it on to lorries that hauled it away.
The weather also posed a challenge, with temperatures dropping well below freezing and rain falling, but workers remained at the site.
The blast occurred just 15 minutes after a resident reported smelling gas at 9:15am on Wednesday, authorities said.
The Con Edison utility firm said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they did not arrive until it was too late.
The explosion shattered windows a block away, rained debris on to elevated commuter railroad tracks close by, cast a plume of smoke over the skyline and sent people running into the streets.
Two victims were identified locally as Griselde Camacho, a 45-year-old security officer at Hunter College University, and Carmen Tanco, a 67-year-old dental hygienist.
Officials in Mexico named two of the dead as Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, and Rosaura Hernandez Barrios, 22, both from Puebla state. The bodies of three unidentified men were also pulled from the rubble, city officials said.
At least three of the injured were children; one, a 15-year-old boy, was reported to be in critical condition with burns, broken bones and internal injuries.
Most of the other victims’ injuries were minor and included cuts and scrapes.
A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said residents had complained to the landlord about smelling gas as recently as Tuesday.
A few weeks ago, Mr Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odour, which he said was so bad that a tenant on the top floor broke open the door to the roof for ventilation.
“It was unbearable,” said Mr Borrero, who lived in a second-floor flat with his mother and sister, who were away at the time of the blast. “You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out.”
But the fire department said a check of its records found no instances in the past month in which tenants of the two buildings reported gas odours or leaks.
Among the missing is Jordy Salas, 21, whose wife Jennifer, who is six-months’ pregnant, said he was in the building with their dog at the time of the collapse.
On Wednesday night, the American Red Cross served meals to more than 130 people living in seven buildings damaged by the blast.
The explosion destroyed everything Mr Borrero’s family owned, including the ashes of his father, who died a few years ago. Mr Borrero said he fears his five-year-old terrier, Nina, was killed. “[But] I have my mother and sister,” he said. “I’m happy for that.”
Eyewitness accounts: Blast ‘like an earthquake’
Police wearing gas and medical masks set up barricades and handed out masks to residents and onlookers to protect them from thick, acrid smoke that shrouded the area. Those without masks held their hands or scarves over their faces.
“It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building,” said Waldemar Infante, 24, a porter from a nearby residential block who was working in the basement when the blast occurred.
“There were glass shards everywhere and all the stores had their windows blown out.”
A resident from a building next to the two that collapsed reported smelling gas, a spokesman for utility company Con Edison said. He said the firm dispatched two crews just after 9.15am but they arrived after the explosion. He said the street was served by an 8in (20cm) low pressure gas main, but would not speculate on whether a gas leak caused the explosion.
“We’re working with the fire department and checking gas lines,” he said. “We’re working to isolate any leaks and make the area safe.”
Ashley Rivera told local media she had smelled gas “for weeks” before the explosion.
“We saw people flying out of the window... those are my neighbours,” she said.
Another witness said he heard two loud explosions that shook the barber shop where he worked. Mitch Abreu said: “It was loud, like boom, boom! It rocked the whole block.”
“A window blew out of the other shop down the street,” he added. “It looked like the [Twin] Towers all over again. People covered in dust and covering their mouths.”
One of the wrecked residential buildings housed a piano shop on the ground floor, the other a shopfront church.
City building department records showed the church was given approval to install new gas pipes in June last year.
A man who lives several blocks from the scene said he heard the explosion, ran to the window and saw flames consuming one building and smoke rising into the air.
“The explosion kind of shook the whole building,” Eoin Hayes, 26, said. “You could feel the vibrations going through.”
The disaster occurred next to elevated Metro-North commuter train lines. Services to and from Grand Central were suspended until the tracks were cleared of debris.
At least 170 fire crew attended the scene, city officials said.