Authorities found two bodies on Sunday in the rubble of a building in the East Village, after an explosion caused by an apparent gas leak destroyed it and its neighboring buildings.
Two people were unaccounted for after the explosion: Moises Ismael Locon, 27, an employee at Sushi Park restaurant, and Nicholas Figueroa, 23, a customer who had just paid the tab, according to his bank record. One body was found twenty feet from the front door and the other body twenty feet behind it, FDNY Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro told reporters Sunday.
The explosion, which occurred at approximately 3:20 p.m. Thursday, is believed to have been caused by plumbing and gas work being conducted inside the five-story building at 121 Second Avenue. Of the twenty-two injured, four are firefighters and four are critically injured. Over the weekend, authorities speculated that the gas line may have been improperly tapped: The New York Times reported that an anonymous tenant in the building said its landlord had siphoned off the gas for renovated apartments in the building.
Immediately after the explosion, East Village residents walked out of their apartments to investigate the violent scene. “I heard a huge bang — it sounded like a summer storm of thunder,” said Olivia Niemeyer, who lives on East 7th Street. “Just a huge bang and crackle and dead silence. I heard the firetrucks and everything, but in the city there are so many noises I didn’t really think anything of it. And then I just got an influx of text messages and calls.”
“Initially I thought it sounded like a gunshot or a car backfiring, but everybody immediately realized it was a lot bigger than that,” said Eric Gustafson, a manager at Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, 48 East 7th Street. “There was immediately smoke pouring out of the ground floor.
“Then all of a sudden you just saw flames behind every window, floor to ceiling, and there’s just flames coming out of the top of the building,” Gustafson said. “One of our customers ran over and helped a girl off a fire escape and there were people bloody.”
Andrew Menard, a writer who since 1977 has lived on Second Avenue with his wife, said he, too, was struck by the ringing sound before realizing what had happened. “Boom! The whole building shook,” he said. “I really didn’t know what it was, so I went to the front window, and that’s when I saw the smoke pouring out, and very quickly, the fire, the flames. We live on the seventh floor of an eight-floor building and the windows face north, so we could feel the heat very quickly.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio arrived on the scene just after 5 p.m. Thursday and made a statement about an hour later. “Preliminary evidence suggests a gas-related explosion,” de Blasio said. “That investigation is ongoing. The initial impact appears to have been caused by plumbing and gas work that was occurring inside 121 Second Avenue.”
Plumbing and renovation work was being done in a restaurant in the building, Sushi Park, which didn’t pass a Con Ed inspection Thursday afternoon, according to reports.
De Blasio said that Con Ed had been on site as little as an hour before the explosion occurred, performing an inspection to see about upgrading the gas system at one of the buildings. He said that there was no call about a gas leak, but cautioned New Yorkers to be aware of the risks. “If people smell gas, they should immediately call 911 or Con Edison,” said de Blasio, dressed in an FDNY windbreaker.
Scott Westerfeld, an author who lives across the street from 121 Second Avenue, was in his apartment less than a block from the site when he heard an explosion. “I stuck my head out the window, and saw the front part of 121 had been blown out into the street,” he said. “The whole façade…It looked like there was somebody in that wreckage.”
Westerfeld said that civilians seemed to be trying to pull people out of the damaged building before rescue personnel had arrived. He saw firetrucks begin to arrive within minutes, but flames quickly overtook the building, which was completely engulfed in fire in less than ten minutes.
Here is video Gustafson shot on his iPhone of the aftermath:
Sushi Park, best known for its 50-percent-off sushi special, was a popular restaurant for locals and tourists on the busy East Village block. Nearby and also blasted was popular Belgian fries spot Pommes Frites, which is closed for the “foreseeable future.” The business posted on its Facebook page Thursday night:
Below is a video and photos of the scene on Thursday night, as firefighters worked to douse the smoldering rubble.
Photos from Thursday afternoon’s aftermath are on the next page.[
Reporting by Jack Buehrer, Jon Campbell, and Nick Lucchesi