At least one person was killed when two buildings collapsed in East Harlem on Wednesday morning, according to authorities, and a senior city official suggested that there would most likely be more fatalities.
Witnesses reported hearing what sounded like an explosion before the buildings collapsed. Flames and smoke could be seen billowing from the street, and the force of the damage blew out windows in neighboring buildings.
At least 16 people were injured, including four seriously, according to city officials. The police said that two residential buildings — 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue — had collapsed.
“This is an occupied building, there were people living there, we have people missing,” the senior official said. “There was a complete collapse; the fire is still going so we can’t make a search. There will be fatalities.”
The Fire Department said it received the first report at 9:31 a.m. and was still working to determine the cause.
In the immediate aftermath, witnesses described a panicked scene, with people running, unsure what was happening.
“I heard this loud explosion and I just jumped and all my windows popped in,” said David Ramirez, 55, who lives in the area. “My building shook and smoke started coming in.”
Waldemar Infante, 24, said that there was a church and a piano store on the street level of the buildings.
“I’m sure there was people in that building when that happened,” he said.
More than 150 firefighters from 39 units responded and were still working to extinguish the fire as paramedics came to the scene. They donned surgical masks as a thick, gray smoke blanketed the neighborhood.
“I was sleeping. I heard the explosion, I saw the smoke; I thought it was a car crash,” Mr. Infante said. “When I ran around the corner to check on my grandmother you couldn’t even see past the 99 cent store. When the smoke cleared up a little bit you could see glass shards; the whole building was gone.”
Metro-North Railroad service in and out of Grand Central Terminal was suspended, officials said, with debris from the buildings thrown onto the elevated train tracks on 116th Street and Park Avenue.
One law enforcement official said Con Ed technicians at the scene have conducted tests that have shown a high level of gas.
“Con Ed is on the scene, but they don’t have access,” the official said, because the fire is still burning.
The official said it appeared that there was a large explosion.