The collapses left two dead and over a dozen injured, said Bill de Blasio, the city’s mayor.
There are also a number of missing persons as of 12:30 p.m., he said in a news conference.
About 250 firefighters responded to the scene.
Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee said that the company and firefighters are checking gas lines. “We’re working to isolate any leaks and make the area safe.”
The East Harlem neighborhood stood at a standstill as police set up barricades to keep residents away from the building that was still spewing thick, acrid smoke into the air, watering people’s eyes. Some wore surgical masks while others held their hands or scarves over their faces.
Sidewalks for blocks around were littered with broken glass from shattered storefront and apartment windows. Witnesses say the blast neat Park Avenue and 116th Street was so powerful it knocked groceries off the shelves of nearby stores.
“It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building,” said Waldemar Infante, 24, a porter from a nearby residential building who was working in the basement when the explosion occurred. “There were glass shards everywhere on the ground and all the stores had their windows blown out.”
The two destroyed buildings, 1644 and 1646 Park Ave., were both five-story brick apartment buildings. One held a piano store on the first floor, the other a storefront church.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.