NEW YORK- A major explosion caused by a gas leak flattened two Manhattan apartment buildings in a fireball Wednesday, killing at least four people and injuring 63 others.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the incident “a tragedy of the worst kind” and his office said nine residents from the two collapsed buildings were still unaccounted for by nightfall.
Firefighters battled throughout the afternoon to extinguish the heavy fire in East Harlem, where witnesses compared the scene of twisted metal, thick white smoke and dusty rubble to a war zone.
Late Wednesday the death toll was raised from three to four, said US media outlets CNN, ABC and CBS.
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.
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.
“There was a major explosion that destroyed two buildings. The explosion was based on a gas leak,” de Blasio said.