It was one of the first truly spring-like days in the city, damp but warm, and the intersection of Second Avenue and Seventh Street in New York’s East Village was typically busy just after 3 p.m. on Thursday. Late lunchers lingered over their meals at Sushi Park or Pommes Frites next door, while passersby ran errands and walked their dogs.
Inspectors from the local utility company had left the building at 121 2nd Ave. not an hour before, having conducted an inspection of the building’s gas upgrade — that the building failed.
A whiff of gas, then a massive explosion tore through the afternoon, spraying hot ash and glass onto the Second Avenue pavement and sending pedestrians into a sprint — first away from the cloud of dust and smoke, then toward it, looking for survivors.
At least 19 were injured, four critically, in the explosion and subsequent seven-alarm fire, the New York Times reported. City officials said the blast appears to have been caused by plumbing and gas work being done inside 121 2nd Ave., which housed the restaurant Sushi Park and several residential apartments.
One person has been reported missing in the wake of the incident — 23-year-old Nicholas Figueroa, who took a co-worker to lunch at Sushi Park Thursday afternoon and has not been heard from since. Figueroa’s family told the Times that a bank statement they accessed after he went missing shows he spent $ 13.04 at the restaurant. They were unable to find him at a makeshift Red Cross center set up in the neighborhood or at a nearby hospital.
East Village resident Troy Hinson, who lives three blocks away from the site of the explosion, was walking toward Sushi Park for lunch when he felt the entire street shudder.
“You could feel it just ripple throughout your body, you could feel it inside you,” he said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
Hinson whipped out his phone and began filming. In the video, bystanders rush to the pile of debris in front of 121 as an alarm blares. A woman cautiously makes her way down the building’s fire escape, calling for help.
Blake Farber was walking past the building at the moment of the explosion, he told New York 1. He turned to see glass fly, and inhabitants fleeing from the building. One woman limped out, her face bloody, her arm around another person for support. From a metal trapdoor in the sidewalk — the kind that many city stores have leading to their basements — one restaurant worker emerged, looking stricken.
“His face was filled with dust,” Farber said. “He looked just miserable … there were just piles, pieces on top of him.”
The initial blast tore the red brick facade off the bottom two floors of 121 and prompted a harried evacuation of residents and restaurant patrons. People clambered down the five-story building’s fire escape, some jumping 10 feet to the pavement when the last stretch of ladder would not deploy.
One man became frantic as soon as he landed, a witness told the Times, shouting “‘Oh my God, we have to save more people.”
While smoke billowed out from the building’s lower stories, another man clambered up the ladder, Hinson’s video shows. He went from window to window, knocking and calling for residents to evacuate. Onlookers convinced him to retreat as flames appeared.
Firefighters arrived just three minutes after the first reports of the explosion. They headed into the disintegrating structure to make “extremely dangerous searches” for remaining residents before being forced out when the building and the one next to it collapsed 15 minutes later, New York Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at a press conference.
The fire soon engulfed 121 and much of the three buildings nearest to it, sending acrid black smoke billowing out over the city. More than 250 firefighters were sent to battle the blaze, which raged well into Thursday night and early Friday morning. At least four firefighters were taken to local hospitals with minor injuries, the Times reported.
New York gas and electric company Con Edison said Thursday that there were no reports of gas odors in the area before the explosion, and a survey of the neighborhood conducted the day before found no evidence of a gas leak. The company did not say whether the problems that caused 121 to fail its inspection Thursday afternoon could have caused the explosion.
At the press conference Thursday, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio (D) cautioned against drawing conclusions about the cause of the incident until it has been fully investigated.
“Until we know what happened here, we cannot pass judgment,” he said.
Thursday’s blast came just a year after a March 2014 gas explosion leveled two buildings in East Harlem, killing eight. On Twitter, some historically minded users also noted the explosion comes on the heels of another notorious Manhattan anniversary: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which nearly 150 workers died at a factory about half-a-mile away.
The gentrified East Village of today — home to artists, yuppies and a growing number of trendy coffee shops — is a far cry from the community of immigrants and tenements it was in 1911. But the neighborhood did its best to live up to its storied reputation for grit. Online and on the sidewalks, residents offered housing to their displaced neighbors. The local elementary school, P.S. 63, was converted into a relocation center for evacuees. A nearby hotel offered a free three-night stay to residents of the four damaged or destroyed buildings, while local restaurants offered free meals to those in need.
“People that live in the East Village have a lot of pride in our neighborhood. I know I do,” Hinson said. “We love it. We’ll stand together.”
Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.
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