NEW YORK—Neighborhood residents in East Harlem, an area also known as Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, said they had smelled gas for days before a powerful natural gas explosion there Wednesday left 3 dead, 9 missing, and at least 60 injured.
Update: As of 10 a.m. Thursday seven people have been reported dead, authorities said.
The explosion, which occurred at 9:31 a.m., leveled two apartment buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. at 116th Street. Two of those who died in the explosion were women in their 40s, and at least three of those injured were children.
The most seriously injured was a 15-year-old boy, 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.
Edward Foppiano, a Con Edison senior vice president, told reporters there was only one gas odor complaint on record with the utility from either address from last May. It was a small leak in customer piping and was fixed, he said.
But Milroy Cobus, who lives at nearby 75 E. 116th St., said she and many other people in her building have been smelling gas for several days.
“For days I smelled gas, it was heavy,” said Cobus. “I checked my pilot [light] and everything was fine, so I thought it was nothing.”
She said trying to complain to her building management is frustrating.
“I can never reach my management,” she said. “It’s scary.”
The explosion occurred a mere 15 minutes after a call to Con Edison reporting a gas leak. It was described by one area resident as sounding like a train crash.
“I thought it was two trains— the crash and the boom of it,” said Martinez Devorah, who lives at 54 E. 116th St., and was on her way home at the time. “I thought it was two trains. I looked back and saw the smoke.”
The worry among many residents as the day wore on and rain began to fall is where they would spend the night.
At least 100 neighborhood residents were displaced after being kept outside for safety, according to New York City Red Cross spokesman Michael de Vulpillieres. The Red Cross set up an emergency center to feed, clothe, counsel, and assist affected residents at P.S. 57, a school at 113th Street between Third and Lexington avenues. De Vulpillieres said the Red Cross will be there as long as necessary.
But area residents were worried about their options as night began to fall.
“If we have no place to stay tonight, they’re going to put us in shelters,” said Devorah. “I’m not going to a shelter—I have a 78-year-old grandmother and 5-year-old daughter.”
Other residents like Devorah fled their homes in shock, many without time to even take essentials.
Rosario Vaolverbe lives on the corner of 117th Street and Park Avenue. She had just stepped into her kitchen at 9:30 a.m. when she heard the explosion. She returned to her room and saw the window had shattered.
“Thank God I went to the kitchen, otherwise my face would have been all blown out by the glass,” she said.
Vaolverbe grabbed a coat and her dog Yankee and ran outside, barefoot.
“I didn’t know if the building’s going to come down,” she said.
When she came out of the building, other people were already gathering on the street. When Vaolverbe saw the ruins were on fire, she figured it was better to leave.
“I said if there’s gas, it’s going to explode.”
She ran two blocks and stopped at the corner of 116th and Madison, where she sat for hours staring into the smoke-filled street. For the time being, Vaolverbe will stay at her mother’s house.
At Harlem Success Academy, located near the exploded buildings at 111st Street and Park Avenue, some students were in the middle of a test at the time of the explosion.
“My classroom was taking a test and we heard a boom,” said Ricardo Rosario, 11, who also goes to karate class nearby. “My whole classroom got scared—we all felt a big boom and we all got a little chatty.”
The school was later locked down for safety, according to Rosario and other students at the scene Wednesday afternoon.
At a press conference after the explosion, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the Fire Department for its “extraordinary fast, precise response.”
Con Edison workers started to cut off gas pipes leading to the location, but the work took time, as it is a “detailed and complicated process,” the mayor said. Workers started drilling the road in front of the buildings Wednesday.
According to Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano, who was also at the press conference, reports of gas leaks are common.
“Con Ed gets reports of hundreds and hundreds of gas leaks every day,” said Cassano. “If it’s a real serious gas leak, they will notify us. Otherwise, they will send a crew out to handle the gas leak on their own.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents the district, spent the day talking with the press and visiting her constituents in the Red Cross staging area. Her district office, about one block away from the explosion, was used as a command post for first responders.
The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) also arrived at the scene early Wednesday evening. NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said he and his team of four investigators will be in New York City for at least three to five days, but the investigation will last about 12 months.
Sumwalt said NTSB will be scrutinizing the number of gas leak complaints received by Con Edison.
“We will be looking at Con Ed’s call logs,” he said. Sumwalt added that there is a long-standing concern over older cast iron pipes like those involved in the Manhattan explosion.
Epoch Times staff member Petr Svab and The Associated Press contributed to this report.