Rescuers search NY buildings after deadly blast

New York City firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan March 12, 2014 in New York City.

NEW YORK - Rescue workers Thursday looked for more bodies as they combed through the rubble of two Manhattan apartment buildings flattened by a thunderous gas explosion, killing at least six people.

Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella told AFP 31 people were confirmed injured and taken to hospital, although many others checked themselves in on their own. Hospital officials put the figure at 63.

City Hall says another nine people were missing, although the fire department did not have a figure of its own, Parrella said. As dawn approached around 100 firefighters were on the scene, as well as police and emergency rescue teams, he said.

The disaster scene was one of utter devastation.

Witnesses compared the scene of twisted metal, thick white smoke and dusty rubble to a war zone. The explosion sparked inevitable reminders for some New Yorkers of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 that brought down the Twin Towers.

Other witnesses said it felt like an earthquake. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the incident "a tragedy of the worst kind" because the smell of gas was detected "but there was no indication in time to save people."

The death toll was described as likely to rise. The latest three bodies recovered were pulled from the rubble overnight. Jazzmen Arzuaga, 30, said she was at work at a hospital when her wife rang to tell her what had happened.

"She called me and told me 'Oh my God, you need to come home now, it's like World War II, people are dying, there was an explosion.' I just literally ran," she said. The couple live across the street from the blast site.

Firefighters battled throughout the afternoon to extinguish the heavy fire in East Harlem.

There were 15 apartments in the two buildings that collapsed, de Blasio and city officials told reporters near the scene at 116th Street and Park Avenue, a mainly Latino community.

Around 15 minutes before the blast, energy company Con Edison received a call from an adjoining apartment building alerting maintenance staff to the smell of gas.

The explosion struck around 9:30 am (1330 GMT) and the New York Fire Department said firefighters were on the scene two minutes later.

'Tremendous' anxiety

It was the first deadly disaster of its kind to strike the city of eight million since the Democrat took office in January and will raise concerns about safety in less affluent neighborhoods.

"There is a tremendous amount of anxiety, but suffice it to say that every effort is being expended to locate each and every one of these (missing) individuals," the mayor said.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry said two women who were among the dead were Mexicans, along with one of those injured. Four different hospitals told AFP they treated a total of 63 patients, the vast majority with minor injuries.

A spokesman for Mount Sinai hospital said 22 people, including three children, were treated. Nineteen were discharged.

One woman was critical but stable with head trauma and two other people were still being evaluated in the emergency room, the spokesman said. The New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation tweeted that its Harlem and Metropolitan Hospitals received a total of 30 patients who suffered a variety of injuries.

A spokeswoman for New York-Presbyterian Hospital said that doctors received 11 patients, with 10 still under evaluation.

The blast forced the suspension of train services in and out of Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan for part of the day.

Arzuaga's wife Jay Virgo, also 30, said she was lying in bed when the blast threw her to the floor. "There was glass everywhere, huge pieces of glass. It just looked crazy," she said.

Multiple New York buildings collapse after explosion