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03.12.14

‘It Sounded Like Someone Kicked My Door In’: The Disaster That Rocked East Harlem

On the smoky streets surrounding two collapsed buildings, eyewitnesses describe a morning of terror.

“It was so loud. I was in the basement and it sounded like someone was kicking my door in,” Jimmy said on the corner of 117th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, a neighborhood where he lives and works as a superintendent for apartments buildings like the ones that collapsed Wednesday morning, killing two and injuring at least 22.

Just around the corner from the wrecked buildings, a woman hurried down the street, pushing a stroller as tears poured down her face while speaking desperate, anguished Spanish to someone on the other end of her phone.

At the next corner, a group of women who had evacuated their own apartments near the explosion were speaking about the woman pushing the stroller. They said she worked as a babysitter and she couldn’t find one of her relatives, who she believed might have been in one of the buildings that collapsed.

In every conversation on the street, people spoke about children, finding them and getting them to safety. Like the school kids at St. Paul’s Church across the street from the explosion, whose teachers rushed them out after hearing the explosion and evacuated them to Third Avenue, a safe distance from the fire.

The cause of the initial explosion that led to the fire and the building’s collapse is still unconfirmed but most reports say that it was caused by a gas leak. More than a dozen people are still missing according to the mayor’s office. Rescue efforts are ongoing.

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In this image handout provided by the Office of Mayor of New York, firefighters from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) pour water on the rubble as they 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. (Getty)

Two local residents, who didn’t know each other but had taken up conversation on a corner outside the police tape, told me that the building where the explosion occurred was the oldest on its block and that small-scale construction had been happening there for months and was ongoing in recent days. There is no additional confirmation that any construction was occurring immediately before the explosion, and there appears to be no current permits filed with the city authorizing construction work at the building.

Emergency vehicles that responded from all over New York City lined the avenues around the site of the explosion. On Lexington Avenue, lights flashed from a large red bus marked “FDNY mobile respiratory treatment unit.” Half a block away was an NYPD “mobile command center,” and next to that an EMT truck tagged for the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn that must have crossed the East River, as had dozens of other first responders, to help clear the scene of the explosion, treat the wounded, and search through the rubble for survivors, or the remains of the dead.

Alongside the emergency vehicles, neighborhood people clogged the sidewalks. Huddled in groups outside the storefronts, people chatted and waited, cried and wailed the names of the missing. Strangers and neighbors comforted each other and sought ways to help.

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Cyrile was sleeping in his apartment on 117th Street when the explosion woke him up. “I’m in my bed sleeping…Boom! Boom! So I started running out of my building to see what was up.”

“My aunt lives in the building right next to it so I was trying to help her get the dogs out and everything. It was crazy, man. Glass was falling from the church. It was crazy, man,” Cyrile said.

“People were just trying to help out. I saw one man, out here on the street under the Metro North train. He was actually smoking. The EMTs put him on the floor to try to put him out. It’s crazy man. I’ve never seen nothing like this in my life.”

It took only a minute for the police to initially repond and about three minutes before the scene of the explosion was covered with first responder units, Cyrile said. “The response time was pretty quick. I commend ‘em on that.”

While the police, fire fighters, and EMTs who arrived in those crucial early minutes continue their work, Cyrile is waiting for news.

“I have one friend he actually makes music in that building on top of the piano store,” Cyrile said. “I haven’t heard from him yet but I really hope he’s alright.”

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Video by Max Crespo

Jimmy, the superintendent who lives and works in this East Harlem neighborhood, stood in the same spot just outside the police tape on Lexington Avenue for an over an hour. A man in his fifties with a patchy beard, Jimmy wore work boots, a blue work vest, the worn-in, multi-pocketed pants of a man who carries many keys and fixes thing for a living, a faded blue Yankees cap, and beneath that a dazed expression.

While he spoke, Jimmy stared east—past the cops manning the barrier and the people clogged around them pleading to get through to find relatives and retrieve their belongings left behind in the rush to evacuate surround buildings—his eyes fixed in in the direction of the rubble where the home of his neighbors once stood.

“As I was coming over, I saw the flames” Jimmy paused, “the flame was quick then it was smoke.”

“They took a lady out,” Jimmy said, his voice quiet and measured. “It looked like she was unconscious. They revived her and got her ready for the ambulance,” here he paused and when he tried to speak again his voice faltered. After a moment, a tear streamed down his cheek. Jimmy continued. “I was just praying,” he said.