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2 NYC buildings collapse in explosion; 2 dead

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By The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 10:30 a.m.

NEW YORK — A resident of a New York City apartment building that was flattened by an explosion says the smell of gas was “unbearable” and residents complained about it repeatedly.

Ruben Borrero says residents complained to the landlord about the smell as recently as Tuesday, a day before the explosion.

He says a few weeks ago, city fire officials were called about the smell because it was so bad that a resident on the top floor busted open the door to the roof for ventilation.

The explosion leveled two buildings, killed at least two people and injured more than 20. More than a dozen are still unaccounted for.

Borrero lived on the second floor with his mother and sister. None of them were at home at the time of the explosion, but he assumes his dog is dead.

Con Edison says it received no gas complaints from the building before Wednesday.

The fiery blast rocked the neighborhood about 9:30 a.m., shattering windows a block away, hurling debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks close by, and sending a plume of smoke over the skyline.

People went running into the streets, and the two five-story buildings on Park Avenue at 116th Street, near the northeastern corner of Central Park, were reduced to a burning heap of bricks 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.”

Con Edison spokesman Bob 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 could be coming from outside.

The utility dispatched two crews two minutes after the call came in at 9:15 a.m., but they arrived just after the explosion, McGee said. This call did not rise to the threshold of an emergency, the utility said.

Police said two women believed to be in their 40s were killed, and two of those hurt had life-threatening injuries.

Fire officials said more than a dozen people were unaccounted for. Mayor Bill de Blasio said some may have made it to safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it is sending a team of experts to New York City to investigate an explosion and building collapse. The safety board investigates pipeline accidents as well as accidents involving all modes of transportation.

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 neighborhood was brought 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 destroyed in the explosion was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu, the proprietor of the piano business, Absolute Piano.

She got the building in a 2008 divorce from Carl Demler, another well-known Manhattan 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 left by a reporter.

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.



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