At Least Nineteen People Injured in East Village Building Collapse

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A building burns after an explosion on 2nd Avenue on March 26, 2015 in New York City. The seven alarm fire drew firefighters from across the city. A number of injuries have been reported. Andrew Burton/Getty

Updated | At least nineteen people were injured, three of them criticially so, after an explosion and partial building collapse in New York City's East Village neighborhood. The fire spread through the seven-floor building on Thursday afternoon, the cause of it not yet been determined, though a problem with a gas line is suspected.

Retired deputy fire chief Vincent Dunn told ABC7 the fire will likely take several days to put out. The ground floor of the building was home to the Sushi Park restaurant, which may have had a large gas supply, he said. The building is 100 years old. By 9 PM, authorities had blocked off six streets surrounding the scene and the Second Avenue was entirely inaccessible. Firefighters used three hoses to battle the flames and directed residents who were vacated from their homes to a nearby elementary school serving as an emergency shelter. Dozens of emergency vehicles were parked around the scene.

The Fire Department of New York said it first received reports of an explosion on Second Avenue and St. Mark's Place at around 3:20 p.m and at least 100 firefighters were dispatched to the scene. Two of those critically injured were burned in their airways, the third was unconscious.

The fire spread to several more buildings. "The situation started at 121 Second Avenue, then spread to 123, but 125, my property, is fine. The fire department is there and working to evacuate tenants as needed," Roman Bohdanowycz, owner of 125 Second Avenue, told Newsweek. "It seems like it all began in the sushi restaurant," referring to Sushi Park at 121 Second Avenue. Authorities told the New York Times 119 Second Avenue was also in danger of collapse and affected by the fire.

A New York Times article from 1855 describes 121 Second Avenue as the "mayor's residence," likely referring to then New York City Mayor Fernando Wood. The building involved in today's explosion dates to around 1886, but a Landmarks Preservation Commission report says it's possible that sections of the building existed earlier on the lot. Another New York Times article, from 1930, says that address was the site of the Russian Art Restaurant, a speakeasy, though an advertisement from the time put the address at 181 Second Avenue.

Jesse Zeigler, 34, who lives next to McSorley's Ale House down the block, said, "I heard the shake. I smelled the smoke by the time I walked into the hall." By the time he arrived on the scene, about 10 minutes later, the flames were about 20 feet high, he said. Tenants including Zeigler are being evacuated from the area. Kelly McInitre, who lives several buildings over from the site of the incident, said she would not stay in her apartment this evening due to the explosion and evacuation.

"There was an explosion, a big giant explosion like a bomb," said Yolanda Hernandez, who lives at 125 Second Avenue. "I open the window and look down to see people just running like crazy." Hernandez went outside to view the scene and when she came back in, her apartment was "filled with black smoke." "There were huge, big flames at the top of the building," she said.

Sangeeta Srestha, 27, was working as a server at a nearby restaurant at the time of the incident. "Everybody thought somebody got shot," she told Newsweek. Within 20 minutes after she heard the sound, the building was engulfed in flames.

It remains unclear how many people were inside at the time of explosion and collapse. Cadaver dogs are at the scene, a standard procedure in cases of this nature. Police officers on the ground in the area are wearing paper face masks.

"Preliminary evidence suggests a gas related explosion. That investigation is ongoing," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. A block resident reported a gas leak to ConEdison at 3:45 PM, Steve Herrick, Executive Director of the Cooper Square Committee, a tenant rights group, told Newsweek. At 2 PM today, prior the the explosion, ConEdison employees visited the building and determined it did not pass an inspection, though the nature of the inspection is unknown. The cause of the explosion is still undetermined, a representative of ConEdison said. ConEdison shut down gas in the Second Avenue area.

Incidents like these only further underscore the importance of compiling a central database of underground infrastructure," Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said in a statement. "With a deeper understanding of our underground infrastructure, construction crews can make the most informed decisions possible potentially avoiding life-threatening mistakes."

"Today our community's heart is breaking," said local council member Rosie Mendez. "My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragedy. I am working closely with emergency services, my colleagues in government and with community leaders to respond to this horrible event."

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A New York City Police helicopter flies near billowing smoke above the site of a residential apartment building collapse. The thick smoke has limited visibility for emergency response workers at the scene. Brendan McDermid/Reuters
East Village Crowd
Residents stand on the sidelines of a building fire in the East Village, some of those who live in the area said they would stay with friends tonight to avoid the chaos. Ben Hider/Reuters
At Least Nineteen People Injured in East Village Building Collapse | U.S.