De Blasio update on East Harlem building collapse

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Firefighters battle a fire after a building collapsed in the East Harlem. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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Three people are dead, 27 injured and nine are missing after two building explosions in East Harlem, which sparked a heavy fire.

"This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people," said Mayor Bill de Blasio, at an outdoor press conference at the scene of the incident, before the third death was confirmed. "We know we've lost two people already."

He was flanked by top administration officials, elected officials and the president and CEO of Con Edison, John McAvoy.

De Blasio said the incidents unfolded in the following order: 

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At about 9:30 a.m. a gas leak caused a "major explosion that destroyed two buildings" containing a total of 15 units: nine in one building, six in the other.

The blast heavily impacted surrounding structures, many of which were evacuated.

The incident led to a "heavy fire" that quickly escalated to a five-alarm blaze. The fire department sent 255 firefighters to the scene.

"FDNY is continuing its efforts to contain the fire and then in the coming fires to finally put the fire out," de Blasio said at the announcement, which started around 12:30 p.m.

"The only indication of danger came about 15 minutes earlier when a gas leak was reported to Con Edison. Con Ed dispatched a team immediately to respond. The explosion occurred before that team could arrive," he said. "As soon as the explosion was called in FDNY responded literally within two minutes of the call for help."

During the news conference firefighters were working to extinguish the blaze and Con Ed was shutting down gas mains leading into the building.

As soon as the fire is out, de Blasio said, crews will begin searching through debris and rubble for missing victims.

"There are a number of missing individuals," he said. "I emphasize that those who are missing could well be safe in another location and just not contacted yet or reachable yet."

He promised a "thorough search to try and find or locate each individual. This is going to be an extended operation."

One of the buildings previously had a structural violation, though it's not clear that played a role in the explosion or the collapse. 

Acting Department of Buildings commissioner Thomas Fariello said after the press conference that the edifice has "no open permits, and no gas-related or plumbing-related violations. … There are no violations related to gas issues and no open complaints on either building."

A spokesperson for the department said the last construction permit for one of the buildings was for plumbing work in the summer of last year, and the last permit for the other building was for work completed in 2005.

One of the buildings paid a fine in 2008 for a vertical crack in the building, according to the spokesperson. That crack does not appear to be related to today's explosion.

A total of seven buildings on Park Avenue between 116th and 117th streets had to have their electric and gas cut, Con Ed representatives said. The utility was able to turn off the gas at the collapsed building and the surrounding area is safe from gas leaks. There are no plans to evacuate any buildings other than those that have already been cleared out.

The FDNY and Con Ed have not yet allowed residents to re-enter the structures.

There is also a water main break at the scene that is being handled but the utility said it is not dangerous.

The City Council proceeded with a scheduled meeting, but Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district the buildings were in and who joined de Blasio at the scene, canceled her routine press conference before Council meetings. The body held a moment of silence in the chambers at the outset of the meeting.

Back at City Hall, Mark-Viverito said the explosion is "probably the worst that I've seen in my district. … It is still an anxious time, and I will be going right back up to my district after this."

De Blasio has canceled all his events for the day and will likely hold further updates later but they are not schedule yet.

As of 2:50 p.m., about 250 firefighters were still on the scene battling a five-alarm blaze. They had also begun digging through piles of rubble for missing people, but had not identified anybody yet, an FDNY spokesman told Capital.

The death toll is still two; the confirmed number of injured is 22. The FDNY spokesman said most of those injuries were minor.

UPDATE: De Blasio spokeswoman Marti Adams said there are now 29 injuries from the explosion including, two fatalities; two people with life threatening injuries; five serious; and 20 minor.

--additional reporting by Dan Goldberg