NEW YORK — Terrorism. An earthquake. A jet crash.
Neighbors thought the worst when a deafening blast shook a busy Manhattan street Wednesday, leveling two buildings, killing at least three people and hurling bricks, concrete and other debris onto nearby rooftops.
Officials said the explosion was caused by a gas leak, which was reported minutes before the blast on 116th Street in East Harlem, a vibrant neighborhood of corner bodegas, churches, shops and apartment buildings.
2:40 a.m. update:
The Associated Press reports that a sixth person has been confirmed killed by the explosion that flattened two New York City apartment buildings.
The blast occurred at 9:31 a.m., turning the busy block into a hellish scene of flames, shattered glass, mushrooming clouds of acrid smoke, and terrified people trying to flee. Vehicles were abandoned in the street as they became enveloped in ash and smoke. Stunned shopkeepers watched their ceilings fall in and their windows blow out.
By evening, the number of people who had sought medical attention for injuries topped 60, and dozens remained hospitalized. Officials said several people were missing, but it was unclear whether they were buried in the wreckage or had been out of the area and were safe elsewhere.
Colin Patterson, who lived and worked in one of the destroyed buildings, was overwhelmed as he described what had happened. "I was just watching TV and a boom … you can't imagine," said Patterson, who was on the job in a piano shop on the ground floor.
Patterson, who was dusty but uninjured, said pianos "flew literally off the ground." He crawled around the instruments to escape the structure, emerging onto a street that looked nothing like the one he had known. A gaping hole stood where the five-story brick buildings had been, and a fire roared out of control.
The explosion shook structures for several blocks. Damian Lopez was asleep in his apartment, eight blocks away, when it woke him up.
"I heard the boom. But it was more like a rumble," Lopez said. "I thought two things. That it could be thunder. But then it's always in the back of my mind that it could be something wrong."
In New York, the images of cars coated in ash and smoke swallowing the street reminded many of how lower Manhattan looked after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I thought it was an earthquake or somebody was bombing the building or something," said Louis H. Rivera, who lives on the block and suffered minor injuries.
At a news briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio said someone called Consolidated Edison at 9:13 a.m. to report the smell of gas outside a building next to the two that collapsed. Two minutes later, utility workers were dispatched to the scene, but they did not get there in time. By 9:31 a.m., the two side-by-side brick structures, housing a total of 15 apartment units, were gone.
"The explosion occurred before that team could arrive," De Blasio said as rescue workers continued searching for possible victims and survivors. "This is a tragedy of the worst kind, because there was no indication in time to save people."
Consolidated Edison President John McAvoy said the utility had no record of calls before Wednesday morning complaining of gas odors in the buildings, but some residents of the area said it had been plagued by gas odors.
Ruben Borrero, who lived in one of the destroyed buildings, said residents had reported the overpowering smell of gas Tuesday to fire officials. "As soon as you walked into the front of the hallway … you could barely get to your door, it was so bad," he said.
Borrero spoke outside a Red Cross facility set up near the blast site to provide food, shelter and counseling to the displaced. A woman wept as she left the center, saying she was looking for her brother-in-law, who lived in one of the destroyed buildings and was missing.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to the scene. NTSB spokesman Robert Sumwalt said call logs from the area to Con Edison would be inspected. He also said the NTSB would look at the gas pipeline that fed the buildings.
Officials said two of the dead were women. Hunter College in Manhattan said on its website that Griselde Camacho, a public safety officer at the school, died in the blast. News 12, a cable station serving Westchester County north of New York City, reported that a cousin of one of its cameramen also was killed. The station identified her as Carmen Tanco, 67, who was in her apartment during the explosion.
Several children were among the injured, including one who was reported in critical condition.
Borrero said that his family had lost all of its belongings but that his mother and sister, with whom he lives, were safe. "They're alive," Borrero said. "Amen."
There have been several fatal blasts involving Consolidated Edison pipelines in recent years, including in 2007, when a steam pipe explosion near Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan killed one person and injured dozens. Explosions in 2007 and 2009 each killed one person.