NY buildings explosion kills 2

Two New York buildings collapsed on Wednesday in an explosion believed to be caused by a gas leak.

Firefighters from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) respond to a 5-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan March 12, 2014 in New York City. Reports of an explosion were heard before the collapse of two multiple-dwelling buildings that left at least 11 injured. Picture: AFP.

NEW YORK - Two New York buildings collapsed on Wednesday in an explosion believed to be caused by a gas leak, killing two people, injuring at least 22, and setting off a search for more feared trapped in the debris, officials said.

A police officer near the scene of a gas leak explosion that caused two buildings to collapse on Park Avenue and 116th street in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan March 12, 2014 in New York City. Reports of an explosion were heard before the collapse of two multiple-dwelling buildings that left at least 17 injured. Picture: AFP.

Clouds of thick smoke billowed from the rubble of the apartment buildings that sat above a ground-level church and a piano store in a largely Latino working-class neighbourhood. Officials declined to give a number of people still missing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rushed to the scene in East Harlem, where a cascade of twisted and burnt metal blocked the sidewalk and covered parked cars, said preliminary information showed the explosion was caused by a gas leak.

Officials at the press conference said the blast occurred 15 minutes after a resident in an adjacent building called Con Edison to complain of a gas odour.

Hundreds of firefighters were scouring the mounds of debris for survivors and trapped bodies.

"There are a number of missing individuals," de Blasio said. "We are expending every effort to locate each and every loved one."

Crews also scrambled to clean up the debris, which littered nearby train tracks and shut down Metro-North Railroad service, ahead of the evening commute.

Neighbours said they thought an earthquake was shaking them from their beds and breakfast tables. The explosion, which could be heard from blocks away, shattered windows around the neighbourhood.

"All of a sudden the whole building shook. We had no idea what was going on," said Robert Pauline, 56, a Columbia University data processor whose apartment six blocks away was rocked by the explosion.

The force of the blast blew Joseph Concepcion, 30, who lives less than a block away, at least an inch off his couch.

"I literally got lifted off my couch, the boom was so strong," Concepcion said.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the collapse and sent his condolences to the victims' families and his support to first responders at the scene.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by this incident," the White House said in a statement.

Crowds of residents, their faces covered with protective scarves and masks, filled the sidewalks of surrounding streets, which were blocked off with yellow police tape.

"It's a very active scene. It's a very chaotic scene," said Fire Department spokesperson Michael Parrella.

Fire trucks used high cranes to spray blasts of water into the rubble, as dozens of ambulances and police cruisers with flashing lights swarmed the scene.

During the morning commute, trains were stopped in nearby stations because of debris on the tracks and passengers were ordered off the Metro-North Railroad cars at the Fordham stop in the Bronx, passengers said.

Metro-North said it had been rerouting commuters to New York City subways and it was not yet clear whether normal train service would resume in time for the evening rush hour.