NEW YORK — The caller who reported a gas smell minutes before a deadly explosion that destroyed two Manhattan buildings had noticed the same odor the night before but did not report it at the time, officials said Thursday, indicating the catastrophe could have been averted if utility crews had been alerted earlier.
At least eight people were killed in Wednesday morning's blast on Park Avenue, between 116th and 117th streets in East Harlem. In a biting wind and temperatures in the 20s, rescue workers continued searching for more people possibly buried beneath the rubble. Wind gusts whipped up hot spots remaining from the raging fire that erupted after the blast, making it too dangerous for federal investigators to begin a hands-on inquiry more than 30 hours later.
"In a word: devastating," Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline explosions, said in an afternoon news briefing after viewing the scene. "You've basically got two five-story buildings that have been reduced to essentially a three-story pile of bricks and twisted metal."
Earlier, the chief executive of Consolidated Edison, John McAvoy, offered more details on the call to the utility company that came at 9:13 a.m. Wednesday, about 18 minutes before the explosion.
McAvoy said the caller reported during that conversation that the odor of gas had been present the night before, but no call had been made to utility crews at the time.
"We know that there was at least one resident who smelled gas the night before but did not report it," he said. "That might've given us an opportunity here — and we think in all likelihood would've given us an opportunity here."
Residents of the area said they had smelled gas in recent days, sometimes so much that they opened windows to air out their apartments. But Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and McAvoy said a review of calls to 911 and to Con Edison, going back as far as 2010, did not show that anyone had phoned to report suspected leaks in the area until Wednesday's call.
McAvoy also said no problems had been detected when the main pipeline serving the block was checked twice in February.
Investigators will review records of calls to Con Edison and 911, Sumwalt said. They also will conduct pressure tests on the main pipeline along Park Avenue and the feeder lines to buildings on the street to try to find the site of the leak. He said that unlike some major blasts that rip pipelines from the ground, this one left the pipeline in place and there were no visible punctures.
Fifteen apartments were destroyed in the explosion, and most of those killed lived in the buildings. Dozens of people were injured, and at least two remained in critical condition.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the explosion underscored the need for people to dial 911 or the city's 311 complaint line if they smelled gas. "It is so much better to report the possibility of a gas leak … than to hesitate," he said.
De Blasio also said the rescue effort would go on indefinitely. "We are continuing rescue operations, hoping to find others still alive," he said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times