Two women were killed and more than a dozen injured in an explosion in East Harlem that leveled two buildings and halted Metro-North train service into Grand Central Terminal.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said a preliminary investigation points to a gas leak as the cause of the blast.
The explosion happened next to Metro-North tracks running above Park Avenue and railroad workers had to remove debris from the area. Service in and out of Grand Central Terminal was suspended until just before 4 p.m., when the railroad announced that some New Haven and Harlem line service would be restored.
“Metro-North structural engineers have verified the integrity of the Park Avenue elevated structure,” a press release from the MTA stated. “Two of the four tracks on the structure – the two farthest from the explosion site – have been restored to service after being cleared of debris, inspected for track and third rail integrity and approved for operations by Metro-North and the New York City Fire Department.”
The railroad said commuters should expect delays and crowding during the evening commute, as tracks are limited and some local and express trains will be combined. Full service will be restored when police and fire officials say it is safe to do so.
Hudson line service remains suspended into and out of Grand Central.
Just before the explosion, a resident in a neighboring building complained of a gas odor to Con Edison, officials said.
“We dispatched a crew two minutes later and the crews arrived just as the explosion occurred,” said Alfonso Quiroz, a spokesman for Con Edison. “We are looking at any connection.”
Massive clouds of smoke billowed from the charred rubble of the adjacent five-story structures, which collapsed around 9:30 a.m. on the largely residential block at East 116th St. and Park Avenue in East Harlem.
The first firefighting units were on scene at 9:33 a.m., a fire department spokeswoman said. She said it was being handled as a fifth alarm by late morning, meaning there were about 44 units and about 198 firefighters on the scene.
“This is a tragedy because there was no time to warn people ahead of time,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference at the scene. “We are expending every effort to locate each and every loved one.”
Residents said the fiery collapse of the apartment buildings atop ground-level businesses — a church and a piano store — was accompanied by a loud boom that could be heard from blocks away and shattered windows around the neighborhood.
“All of the sudden the whole building shook. We had no idea what was going on,” said Robert Pauline, 56, a Columbia University data processor whose apartment six blocks away was rocked by the explosion.
Another nearby resident, Chasity Bergos, 23, said she received worried calls from friends who “woke up thinking it was an earthquake.”
De Blasio rushed to the scene, where a cascade of twisted and burnt metal blocked the sidewalk and covered parked cars.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the collapse and sent his condolences to the victim families and his support to first responders at the scene.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by this incident,” the White House said in a statement.
Crowds of residents, their faces covered with protective scarves and masks, filled the sidewalks of surrounding streets, which were blocked off with yellow police tape.
“It’s a very active scene. It’s a very chaotic scene,” said Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella.
Fire trucks used high cranes to spray blasts of water into the rubble, as dozens of ambulances and police cruisers with flashing lights swarmed the scene.
Commuter trains were stopped on nearby tracks because of the debris on the rails and passengers were ordered off the Metro-North Railroad cars at the Fordham stop in the Bronx, passengers said.
Jess Perez, 24, who lives just a few blocks away, said she felt her building shake badly, so her first thought was that something had happened to it.
“I came right out of my building,” Perez said. “I knew it was something big.”
Perez saw other people who also streamed onto the street, wondering what had happened.
“Suddenly I see people running,” she said. “I could see thick orange flames on top of the roof.”
Metro-North Railroad trains run on elevated track along Park Avenue at the point of the explosion.
— Reuters and McClatchy-Tribune Information Services reports are included
By Kelly Glista, Hartford Courant