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Building Collapse in Harlem

There was a call that came in to Consolidated Edison at 9:13 a.m. on Wednesday morning, March 12, 2014, before the building collapse in Harlem. A smell of gas had been detected the night before. Now, the smell of gas was stronger around two buildings by 116th  Street and Park Avenue in East Harlem.

Then, in less than 20 minutes, the buildings collapsed. They were brought down by an enormous explosion that could be felt over a mile away.

One witness to the explosion was Mustafa Shohataa, age 27, who was standing near the buildings on Park Avenue at 116th Street. The witness said, “It felt like the world shook.”

As 21 year old Ashley Rivera held back tears, she said, “We saw people flying out of the windows. Those are my neighbors.”

Residents complained

Ruben Borrero, a tenant in one of the buildings that were destroyed, said that residents had complained to the landlord about smelling gas as recently as Tuesday, the day before the explosion.

Borrero also said that city fire officials were called about the odor a few weeks ago. However, the Fire Department said that a check of their records found no instances in the past month where tenants of the two buildings had reported gas odors or leaks.

A senior vice president of Consolidated Edison, Edward Foppiano, said that there was only one complaint of gas odor on record with the utility from either building. He said it was last May. It was a small leak in customer piping and was repaired. He also added that the block was last checked on February 28th as part of a regular leak survey, and no problems were detected at that time.

Examining debris

Between 60 and 70% of the rubble had been removed from the site of the explosion and collapse as of Saturday, March 15th. Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said that investigators were examining each piece of debris to try and determine the cause of the explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which reviews accidents that involve natural gas, said that natural gas was found in the ground underneath the building during tests after the disaster.

Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB said, “Normally, the soil in New York City 18 to 24 inches down into the ground would have zero concentration of natural gas, so the fact that in  least five of the holes, the concentration on gas ranged between 5 and 20 percent, that tells us that’s a pretty good concentration of natural gas in that area. That further leads to the hypothesis that this may well have been a natural gas leak.”

Difficulty getting close

The NTSB said that it was having difficulty getting close enough to examine the main pipe that supplies natural gas to the Upper East Side neighborhood where the explosion and collapse took place. The NTSB is trying to determine the origin of the gas.

Tragically, eight people were killed in the explosion and collapse. Five women and three men were killed. Over 60 more people were injured in the disaster. New York City officials say that all of the missing people have likely been accounted for.

Article written by James Shugart

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