The search was continuing on Thursday for victims of a gas explosion in the East Harlem neighbourhood of New York that killed at least eight people and left more than 70 injured.

Minutes before the explosion, utility company Con Edison received a call from a nearby building warning about a gas smell. As Con Edison employees headed to the scene, the explosion caused the collapse of two buildings and resulted in a fierce fire.

The explosion has raised questions about the age and condition of infrastructure in New York City and around the United States. A report published this week showed many gas pipes in the city are more than 50 years old.

Search and rescue teams combed through the smouldering rubble overnight in search of people who were reported missing. Just after midnight, the body of an adult male was found in the rubble. The bodies of a man and woman were found in the debris on early Thursday morning, and another body was discovered in the afternoon.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said that search and rescue operations would continue “for an open-ended period of time,” at a press conference on Thursday. He said below-freezing temperatures and heavy winds that whipped up smouldering fires at the site were affecting recovery efforts.

“This has been a very painful episode for the people of East Harlem,” de Blasio said. “There are still a lot of unknowns here.”

The mayor said officials were not certain how many people were still missing. “There are still questions about the whereabouts of some individuals so I don’t want to put forward a number until we are certain,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio said the city’s fire department, police department and the National Transportation Safety Board are conducting a joint investigation to determine the exact cause of the explosion.

Officials said that the city’s emergency telephone lines had not received a report of a gas leak in the destroyed buildings or those that surrounded them in the past 30 days. John McAvoy, the CEO of Con Edison, the utility company, said that in addition to the call received just before the explosion, the company had received two calls about gas leaks on the block in the past three years.

The city has evacuated 89 residential buildings and three stores in the vicinity of the blast site because of damage and because gas and water have been cut off from the area. De Blasio said these buildings were not vacated because of structural concerns.

The accident has raised questions about the city’s infrastructure, buttressed by a report issued a day earlier in the week, highlighting the city’s ageing utilities networks. De Blasio said infrastructure problems are “a fundamental challenge for New York City and any older city”.


“Areas with old and vulnerable infrastructure describes a lot of New York City, honestly,” de Blasio said.

City officials also emphasised that people affected by the explosion would receive help, regardless of their immigration status.

More than 250 firefighters responded to the incident on Wednesday and National Transportation Safety Board representatives arrived later in the day to help investigate the cause of the explosion.

The explosion destroyed two five-story apartment buildings, 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue. The two buildings had a total of 15 apartments The street-level floor of one building housed a piano store and the other a Spanish Christian church.

The buildings were parallel to train tracks and debris from the accident caused Metro-North commuter railroad service to be suspended on Wednesday. Service was restored late in the afternoon.


On Tuesday, a day before the incident, the Center for an Urban Future released a report criticizing New York City’s infrastructure. The report (pdf) said that the city’s gas mains are, on average, 56 years old and “more than half of its gas mains were installed before 1960”.