NEW YORK (AP) — A thunderous explosion apparently caused by a gas leak flattened two East Harlem apartment buildings Wednesday, killing at least two people, injuring more than 20 and leaving more than a dozen others missing. One tenant said residents had complained repeatedly in recent weeks about "unbearable" gas smells.
The fiery blast erupted about 9:30 a.m., around 15 minutes after a neighboring resident reported smelling gas, authorities said. ConEd said it immediately sent utility workers to check out the report, but they didn't arrive until it was too late.
The explosion shattered windows a block away, hurled debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks close by, cast a plume of smoke over the skyline, and sent people running into the streets.
The two five-story buildings on Park Avenue at 116th Street, not far from the northeastern corner of Central Park, were reduced to a burning heap of broken bricks, wood and metal.
"It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building," said Waldemar Infante, a porter who was working in a basement nearby. "There were glass shards everywhere on the ground, and all the stores had their windows blown out."
A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said that residents had complained to the landlord about the smell of gas as recently as Tuesday, a day before the disaster.
A few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odor, 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 Borrero, who lived in a second-floor apartment with his mother and sister. "You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out."
The Fire Department said it was checking its records to see if it had responded to any gas complaints at the building. Con Ed spokesman Bob McGee said a preliminary review by the utility found no record of any calls from tenants of the buildings about gas leaks before Wednesday.
"As of right now, there's nothing that indicates there was any call in the immediate past from anyone on that block," McGee said.
Police said two women believed to be in their 40s were killed. One of those hurt was reported in critical condition with head injuries.
Fire officials said more than a dozen people were unaccounted for, but cautioned that some of them may not have been in the building. Four hours after the blast, firefighters were still dousing the flames with water, and rescue workers had yet to venture into the debris to search for victims.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it is sending a team to investigate. The agency investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters.
ConEd's McGee said a resident from a building next to the two that were destroyed had reported smelling gas inside his apartment and thought the odor might be coming from outside. The utility dispatched two crews two minutes after the 9:15 a.m. call came in, McGee said.
The tragedy brought the neighborhood to a standstill as police set up barricades to keep residents away. Thick, acrid smoke rose into the air, causing people's eyes to water. Some wore surgical masks, while others held their hands or scarves over their faces.
Sidewalks were littered with broken glass. Witnesses said the blast was so powerful it knocked groceries off store shelves.
One of the side-by-side buildings had a piano store on the first floor, the other a storefront church. Building Department records don't show any work in progress at either address, but the building with the church had obtained permits to install new gas pipes in June.
City records show that one of the two buildings was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu, proprietor of the piano business, Absolute Piano.
She got the building in a 2008 divorce from Carl Demler, another well-known piano dealer. During the time that Demler owned the Harlem building, city inspectors cited it for dangerous cracks in the rear facade. But that violation was later dismissed.
Demler did not respond to a message seeking comment.
A resident of the one of the buildings, Eusebio Perez, heard news of the explosion and hurried back from his job as a piano technician.
"There's nothing left," he said. "Just a bunch of bricks and wood."
Perez, 48, said he shared an apartment with a roommate and was unsure what his next steps would be.
"I only have what I'm wearing," he said. "I have to find a place to stay for tonight and organize what's going to be my next steps."
The Metro-North commuter railroad, which serves 280,000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut, suspended all train service to and from Grand Central while the debris was removed from its tracks.
Associated Press Reporters Verena Dobnik, David B. Caruso, David Crary, Leanne Italie and Meghan Barr contributed to this report.
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