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Updated: 2 New York City buildings collapse in explosion, 2 dead

March 12, 2014 at 11 a.m.
Updated March 11, 2014 at 10:12 p.m.

Emergency workers respond to the scene of an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee says a resident from a building adjacent to the two that collapsed reported that he smelled gas inside his apartment, but thought the odor could be coming from outside. (AP Photo/Jeremy Sailing)

NEW YORK (AP) — An explosion on Wednesday leveled two New York City apartment buildings, killing two people, injuring 17 others and sending smoke billowing above the skyline.

The blast happened after a neighbor reported smelling natural gas.

The New York Police Department said two females died in the explosion, but no further information was available.

Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee said a resident from a building adjacent to the two that collapsed reported that he smelled gas inside his apartment, but thought the odor could be coming from outside. McGee said the utility dispatched two crews just after 9:15 a.m. but they arrived just after the explosion.

He would not speculate on whether a gas leak caused the explosion.

The street is served by an eight-inch low pressure gas main, McGee said.

“We’re working with the FDNY and checking gas lines,” he said. “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.

Building Department records don’t show any work in progress at either location, but the building that holds the church obtained permits to install new gas piping in June.

One resident of 1646 Park Ave., Eusebio Perez, heard news of the explosion and hurried back from his job as a piano technician.

“There’s nothing left,” he said by cellphone from a police barricade two blocks away. “Just a bunch of bricks and wood.”

Perez, 48, said he shared an apartment in the building 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.”

Eoin Hayes, 26, said the explosion shook his entire apartment building at about 9:30 a.m. He ran to the window and saw flames consuming one building and smoke rising into the air.

“I was in my bedroom and the explosion went off, it kind of shook the whole building,” Hayes said. “You could feel the vibrations going through the building.”

The explosion occurred very close to elevated Metro-North commuter railroad tracks. Metro-North service was suspended to and from Grand Central on all three train lines while employees remove debris from the tracks.

The fire department said it sent nearly 200 members to the scene.

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