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2 dead, more than 20 injured in explosion that thundered through NYC

March 12, 2014|By Tina Susman and Michael Muskal

NEW YORK -- Damian Lopez said he was asleep in his apartment at 9:31 a.m. when he heard thunder. At least he thought it was thunder.

"I heard the boom. But it was more like a rumble," said Lopez, who lives at 108th Street and Park Avenue, about eight blocks from where a gas leak caused a massive blast Wednesday.

"I thought two things," he said. "That it could be thunder. But then it's always in the back of my mind, that it could be something wrong."

PHOTOS: Chaotic scene of building collapse

Two buildings on Park Avenue in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan were substantially destroyed by an explosion and a five-alarm fire that burned through the morning. Two deaths were confirmed and more than 20 injuries were reported as officials continued to track down the missing.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference the number of missing remained unclear. Some, he emphasized, might simply be at work and unaware that police were trying to account for them as search teams scoured the wreckage of what had been the pair of residential and commercial buildings.

The mayor pledged a full investigation into the catastrophe. A go team from the National Transportation Safety Board was sent to the scene to aid with the investigation.

The block on which the buildings stood was closed to all but residents and emergency workers. The acrid smell of smoke wafted through the air, extending even below ground into area subway tunnels. Shards of glass littered streets immediately adjacent to the stricken block, where a gaping hole marked the spot of the explosion.

One woman clutched a slip of paper with the name of someone she said lived in one of the destroyed buildings, which had a total of 15 apartments. The man whose name was on the paper had not arrived at work, and his family was worried, the woman said, as she tried to report him missing to police.

Officials have not identified the confirmed dead except to say they were women. Among the injured were two FBI agents who sustained minor injuries when the explosion went off while they were driving by, according to a spokesman.

The mayor said there had been complaints from people who said they smelled gas. The complaints came 15 minutes before the explosion when a leak was reported to Con Edison, the local utility. Con Ed sent a team to the scene but the explosion took place before the team arrived, De Blasio said.

One of the side-by-side buildings that had been leveled had a piano store on the ground floor, while the other had a storefront church.

Nearby was the elevated tracks of the Metro-North commuter railroad, which brings commuters from upstate and New England to Grand Central. Service was suspended while the tracks were cleared.

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