Mayor de Blasio Delivers Update On East Harlem Explosion And Building Collapse

New York, NY…Mayor de Blasio: I’d like to speak about the tragedy that unfolded this morning. There’s a lot to tell you about what’s going on, about the extraordinary response by our first responders. But first, let me tell you were – I’m going to give you a quick overview. We’re then going to hear from our fire commissioner Sal Cassano. We’re going to hear from Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents this district in the City Council. With us are other key leaders of our response who will join in for the Q & A – Commissioner Bill Bratton and Chief Phil Banks of the NYPD, Joe Bruno of OEM, Tom Fariello the acting buildings commissioner, also would like to welcome John McAvoy, the president and CEO of Con Edison who is with us. And thank Council Member Inez Dickens for being here. And we have representatives of Congressman Rangel’s office as well. So today at approximately 9:30 am, there was a major explosion that destroyed two buildings – the explosion was based on a gas leak. The impact affected buildings around the two that were destroyed – very heavy impact on the surrounding buildings. A heavy fire has ensued as well. The fire is now up to a five-alarm level of response and FDNY is continuing its efforts to contain the fire, and then in the coming hours to finally put the fire out. There was no warning in advance.

From the information we have now – I’d like to emphasize, everything I’m telling you is based on preliminary information, which is the best information we have at this moment and is by definition preliminary – but from what we know now, the only indication of danger came about 15 minutes earlier, when a gas leak was reported to Con Edison. Con Ed dispatched a team immediately to respond. The explosion occurred before that team could arrive. As soon as the explosion was called in, FDNY responded literally within two minutes of the call for help. FDNY is now, again, in the process of putting out the fire. Con Ed is in the process of shutting down all gas mains going into this building. But that is a detailed and complicated process that requires digging up the ground and a lot of manual labor to turn off all the different supplies of gas to the building. This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people. We know we’ve lost two people already. We know at this moment – preliminarily – that 18 are injured. Different levels of injury. We also know that there will be a search through the rubble of the building as soon as the fire is put out, looking for those who are missing. There are a number of missing individuals. I emphasize that those who are missing could well be safe in another location and just not contacted yet or reachable yet. But there are a number of missing individuals and there’s going to be a thorough search to try and find or locate each individual.

This is going to be an extended operation. It will take quite a bit of time to fully address this issue. To achieve that, we have on the scene 250 firefighters and dozens of pieces of equipment including heavy equipment necessary to deal with the rubble from the building. I want to say that once again we have been shown what our first responders are capable of doing under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. All of the agencies that responded – led by the FDNY – immediately secured the situation and the surrounding buildings, checked these surrounding buildings, made sure that everyone in those buildings was safe, made sure the fire was not spreading to other buildings. Extraordinary, fast, precise response by our first responders. I want to thank the police, OEM, everyone who’s been a part of this operation already. We have a lot of people in this community right now deeply concerned, a lot of people who have been negatively affected in their buildings surrounding [inaudible] from the two that collapsed wondering where their loved ones are. Speaker Mark-Viverito is talking to a number of families. I’ve spoken to the pastor of the church that was one of the storefronts in these buildings. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety, but suffice it to say that every effort is being expended to locate each and every one of these individuals. Finally, for any relatives who are looking for information about their loved ones, a special hotline will be set up shortly but for now they can call 3-1-1. So for relatives, family members looking for information about loved ones who might have been in either of these buildings, they can call 3-1-1. Calls will be taken in both English and Spanish. With that, let me bring forward Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano to give you more details of the situation and the response.

Commissioner Sal Cassano, FDNY: Thank you, Mayor. Just to reiterate a little bit what the mayor said – the call originally came in at 9:31 and we had our first unit on the scene at 9:33. They were faced with a very heavy fire condition. Two buildings collapsed, debris covering the sidewalk and a couple of vehicles in the street. So they quickly transmitted an alarm for a major collapse response. And we now have over 250 firefighters, dozens of pieces of equipment, dozens of pieces of special equipment with our special operations command. We have backhoes on the scene but we know we’re going to need some cranes, which we have coming on the way. The plan right now is to extinguish the fire. We’re doing surface removal at the present time. We have to clean the sidewalk of the debris and the brick to check to make sure that there was nobody on the sidewalk or the street. And then once the fire is under control and extinguished, we will start to do some surface removal, some debris removal, some very careful – the building is in a very precarious position, we want to make sure that everybody that’s in there, that first responders are safe. It’s been a great interagency response between OEM, police, fire, buildings, but it’s going to be a long extended operation to make sure that we can get through that debris as quickly as possible.

Mayor: Thank you very much, Commissioner. I’d like to call forward Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito: Thank you, Mr. Mayor. As it has been indicated, I represent this district. My district office is literally half a block from the explosion site. I live five blocks from here. I was headed to City Hall when I heard what happened and quickly turned around to be here. And obviously it’s an extremely anxious time for the constituents that live here, for the families that have been impacted, but I want to praise and give thanks to the first responders. Not only the FDNY, the NYPD and all agencies that have responded, the level of professionalism, clearly, is not to be questioned, and it’s been an incredibly quick response. We have made our district office a command post for the first responders. We’re interacting with some of the impacted families, trying to ensure that they get all the proper support possible. So, I really want to thank everyone that has helped to this point. We’re going to be as collaborative as possible with all of the agencies. Obviously there are people that are still unaccounted for and that is a concern, but we also have to think about people that have been displaced, so all city agencies have a role to play, and we will facilitate that in whatever way.

Me gustaría decir en español que cualquier persona que tenga familia o que conozca de personas que hayan vivido en estos edificios, que por favor se comunique con el 3-1-1. Que no tengan miedo de buscar ayuda. Se va a establecer una línea de emergencia, pero hasta el momento no lo tenemos. Y le pedimos a la gente que tenga cualquier información, específicamente sobre esto, si están buscando compartir información por favor llamen al 3-1-1 y recibirán la ayuda necesaria.

Así que – thank you very much to the first responders, and I really want to also thank very strongly the mayor for his quick response, and for being here to provide comfort and leadership during this time.

Mayor: Thank you. I want to emphasize – to all family members, all the loved ones, all friends, of people who lived in the building and are as-yet unaccounted for, we are expending every effort. Our hearts go out to all the families involved. We’re expending every effort to locate each and every loved one. Hopefully, again, we will find that some of those individuals are somewhere else in the city and just had not yet been located or hadn’t been reached on their cellphones. So we’re going to really use every effort we have to communicate – with our hospital system, every tool of the NYPD to locate people. And of course, there will be a recovery effort as well, looking for survivors. I want to secondly say that – that again, everything based on preliminary information, just over the last few hours, but based on preliminary information we’ve seen no indications of foul play. Absolutely no indications of foul play. With that, let’s take questions and you can indicate – let me just say, you can indicate if you have a particular commissioner you want to ask, please do. Otherwise I may turn to some, depending on the questions.

Question: How many people are there missing? And also was there any indication that that there was gas in the air before the fire [inaudible]?

Mayor: So I’ll start, and then I’ll turn to Commissioners Cassano and Bruno on the second question on the air quality – on whether it’s toxic. We, again, what’s what? You want to use this?

Speaker Mark-Viverito: Just for one TV station, do what you were doing.

Mayor: Let’s try that again. In terms of the number of people missing – guys, if you want to listen to this, please. I can only project the most I can. Everyone ready? In terms of the number of people missing, we don’t want to give a number yet, because we are still in the process of locating people, again, many of whom may just be in other places in the city, going about their normal business. So we’ll have more information in the coming hours. I don’t want to mis-project a number. We do know that there’s a certain number of people we’re trying to locate, and when we get a better read on that, the people who have been located – versus the people that truly are still unaccounted for – we’ll be able to say more.


Mayor: On the air quality, hold on, hold on, on the air quality.

Commissioner Cassano: In the immediate vicinity of the building, with air and smoke, there are particulates in the smoke for sure. But in the surrounding area, in the open air, with the wind and all, people will be okay. It’s just in the immediate area of the building, which we’re not allowing anywhere near where there’s smoke. The air quality is not good in that immediate area.


Mayor: Hold on, hold on, one at a time. Hold on one second. Over here first.

Question: [inaudible] but that there was a phone call about a gas leak fifteen minutes before?

Commissioner Cassano: There was a gas leak that was called into Con Ed at 9:13. For an adjoining building, not for the address of the two buildings that were exploded and collapsed.

Question: Do you know which address?

Commissioner Cassano: I think it was 1652, and they were in the process of responding, but hadn’t got there. Then the call came in to 911 at 9:31, and we had our first unit on the scene at 9:33.

Mayor: We’re going to come around. Let’s start over here in the purple.

Question: I’ve spoken to a couple of residents who have said in the past that they’ve smelled gas near that intersection, and I was wondering if Con Ed could verify if there have been any reports [inaudible]?

Mayor: President McAvoy.

John McAvoy, President and CEO of Con Edison: Yes, first I want to add that our hearts go out to the loss of life and those who were injured in this, and their families, and our hearts and prayers will be with them. Regarding the reports of gas prior to 9:13, our first indication of any gas leak was at 9:13 this morning, when we received a call of a gas leak at an adjacent building. We dispatched crews two minutes later at 9:15. We do not have any confirmations, although I’ve heard some in the media reports, we do not have any indication at this point of gas leaks prior to 9:13 this morning.

Question: Or like a smell of gas, you’ve never had residents call in saying we smell gas in that area?

McAvoy: We don’t have any reason or calls to support that, no. This is all preliminary information and we continue to check.

Mayor: All right, we’re going to come around to create a little order, come around this way. Jonathan, next, but just to clarify, the only – based on preliminary information, I’ll keep saying that – the only indication was a call at 9:13, 9-1-3, of a gas leak, and then the explosion occurred roughly 15 minutes later. Jonathan.

Question: [inaudible] In the two buildings that exploded, have there been reports of construction and renovation in the two buildings [inaudible] or from neighbors?

Mayor: Let’s get Commissioner Fariello to speak to that. Commissioner Fariello of the Department of Buildings.

Commissioner Thomas Fariello, Buildings: Okay, we had no current work permits that were issued by the Department on either building right now. So, we cannot confirm whether there was legal work on the buildings, and we have no comments from this department at this time.

Mayor: Okay, one more over here, and then we’re going to this side. One more, there.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Okay, say again please?

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: No, I think that the bottom line is, we have very professional, experienced people at each agency, and [inaudible] Commissioner Fariello has been there a while, and knows his work. So we know that everyone is doing everything they can to respond to this situation. I want to thank Borough president Gale Brewer for being with us as well.

Question: Does Con Ed have an obligation to notify FDNY [inaudible] they get a report of the gas leak, and when could that change?

Commissioner Cassano: Con Ed gets reports of hundreds and hundreds of gas leaks every day. If it’s a real serious gas leak, they will notify us. Otherwise, they will send a crew out to handle the gas leak on their own.

Question: Is there anything you could have done if you had been notified before?

Commissioner Cassano: If we were here five minutes earlier, we might have had some fatalities amongst our firefighters as well. So, not being here at that time maybe saved some of our lives.

Question: Where are you going to take all the people who are being evacuated?

Mayor: Okay, questions about all the people being evacuated, Joe Bruno.

Commissioner Joseph Bruno, OEM: Yeah, we have evacuated all the surrounding buildings, those two next to it, we’ve evacuated some buildings across the street, some people have been moved out. So we are going door to door in these buildings – NYPD is doing that, Buildings is doing that, in all the surrounding buildings to ensure everyone is safe, and that they are, if they have to, that they leave the building. So there’s been a lot of evacuation in and around the area.

Question: How many people approximately?

Speaker Mark-Viverito: We don’t know.

Mayor: We’re not tracking numbers until we have a better count but –

Commissioner Cassano: Any building that had windows that were blown out due to the explosion was searched, and we let people shelter in place so that we didn’t have to displace people just because their windows were blown out. And we’re in the process of working with other agencies to ensure that those windows are sealed before the night and the rain comes.

Mayor: Let me just give you an update on aid to families and residents in any of the surrounding buildings that were affected. The Red Cross has just set up a center to receive and support anyone affected by this tragedy. It is at Public School 57, P.S. 57, at 176 East 115th Street, right over here, 115th between Third and Lex. Anyone who’s been affected by this tragedy, needs a place to go and be safe, needs counseling or emotional support, needs information, needs food and water, that’s an opportunity, a place where they can go and be safe. Again, 176 East 115th Street, P.S. 57, the Red Cross Center.

Question: [inaudible]

Speaker Mark-Viverito: Aqui? He’s been talking to some people and they’re saying there’s a smell of gas in this corridor.

Mayor: So we’ll check into it then.

Commissioner Cassano: Absolutely.

Mayor: If there’s any additional reports of a gas smell, between FDNY and Con Ed, there will be a follow-up right away.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Let me let Con Ed respond to that. Again, I want to emphasize, with deep appreciation for the FDNY, fire department response time was two minutes. Fire Department, from the time of the explosion to the time they were on the scene to immediately try and save the people, and support the people involved, two minutes. I’ll let Con Ed speak to their response time.

McAvoy: We received the first call at 09:13, 9:13 am. We dispatched crews at 9:15. They responded to the scene shortly after the building has collapsed.

Mayor: Do you know where they were coming from, any indication?

McAvoy: They were a little further north. I don’t know the exact location. We received calls after the building collapsed. That was really the only initial call.

Question: [inaudible]

McAvoy: We do, and it’s based on severity of the leak. The most severe leaks, the target time is 30 minutes or less. And, as Commissioner Cassano said, when they come in, if they reach a certain threshold that indicates a high level of severity, we will notify the fire department immediately as well. This did not meet that threshold. It was reported from an adjacent building, as coming from outside the building, so it did not require that upgraded response.

Mayor: You said, based on, what’s given to you?

McAvoy: That’s correct. Based on the information we had.

Mayor: Coming over this side. Yes.

Question: Based on the information, [inaudible] violations against 1646 Park Avenue. Is this a building that [inaudible]?

Mayor: Tell me the – which address, again? 1646? Let’s clarify. Again I want to also say, I’ll say something for Tom. The difference between – we are concerned about every kind of violation, every kind of thing that needs to be fined. A number of violations would not have turned into a situation like this. There’s a whole range of potential things that we may enforce that have nothing to do with gas. So, just want to clarify.

Commissioner Fariello: Right. 1646, the building on the right, did not have any open or any gas or plumbing-related violations on them. Right? There is one violation – failure to maintain the building. It’s from ’08. But nothing gas – nothing gas-related or plumbing-related on that building at all. The building – no violations at all that were related to the gas or plumbing.

Question: [inaudible]

Commissioner Fariello: Nothing from our – nothing from our department –

Mayor: Based on what we know at this moment.


Commissioner Cassano: Sure. Well, first we’ll do surface removal. We’ll check on the surface, and then we’ll do selected debris removal. We’ll take debris – very small amount of debris at a time. We’ve got to make sure that the building is stabilized. We’ll work with the buildings department. And then we’ll do – we’ll get to the basement eventually. But it’s going to be a very – make no mistake about it, a long extended operation, done very carefully so that first responders aren’t put in danger. So it’s going to take a while, but PD had their dogs on the scene and check the debris for us, and we didn’t get any hits from the dogs. So that’s one positive. But again, we’re going to remove the debris from the site, which we’re doing right now, and then we’ll get into the building itself.

Question: [inaudible]

Commissioner Cassano: No, I’m – I’m not, no. I’m not going to say that.

Mayor: We want to just caution – just one second. We want to caution that we don’t want to speculate on the number of people who might be in the building and their situation until we have the ability to get closer and deal with that rubble. So I want to be very careful. We’re saying there’s a number of unaccounted for people. Some may well be safe and sound elsewhere in the city and just not reachable. God forbid there are some in that building, it will still take some time to get in there and know for sure.

Question: [inaudible]

Mayor: Very preliminarily. The speaker and I spoke to Pastor Thomas Perez, who is the pastor of the church and owner of one of the buildings, and he and some of his congregants were there and some people who were either family members – they were trying to clarify who might’ve been there. They still don’t know themselves. And they – you know, people live in the building are directly connected to the building – so everyone’s trying to piece it together without assuming until we’re sure. We certainly do not want to alarm family members. We want to make sure everyone is accounted for in every way. But this will be, again, a long operation to get in there and fully get the answers.

Question: [inaudible] Mark-Viverito, nos puede decir aproximadamente cuantas familias viven en esos edificios? Y más que nada, un mensaje a sus constituyentes? Este es su comunidad, y muchos están sumamente dolidos por lo que ocurrió.

Mark-Viverito: No, estamos bien apenados por lo que ha ocurrido, pero entendemos que estamos en el proceso. Estamos siendo cautelosos y queremos ser responsables en averiguar exactamente quien vivía en esos edificios. Estamos en el proceso de contactar a los dueños de los edificios, a averiguar cuantas personas vivían allí y estamos en ese proceso. Así que no le puedo darles números específicos, pero lo que estaba mencionando antes es que todavía no tenemos una línea telefónica de emergencia. Entre tanto, que la gente llame 3-1-1. Que por favor se comuniquen con el 3-1-1 si tienen alguna información o si están pidiendo información sobre una persona que conozcan. Y hasta el momento, lo vamos a tomar paso por paso. Pero en la oficina, tenemos las puertas abiertas, estamos trabajando con el departamento de policía y el departamento de bomberos para asegurar que tengan un espacio a donde trabajar y prestarle ayuda a la comunidad.

Question: Do you have an idea if the fatalities are from the two exploding buildings or the two surrounding buildings?

Mayor: Again, I don’t think – and I’ll look to Commissioner Bratton, Commissioner Cassano, Commissioner Bruno – I think we want to be very cautious about giving any breakdowns until we have better information. We do know there were two fatalities – two deaths. From that point on we want to be very cautious and make sure we have accurate information.

Question: Do you know how many residential units were in both buildings?

Mayor: Tom, do we know how many? Between the two that collapsed, how many residential units?

Commissioner Fariello: Yes. The information we have is that 1644 had six families. Six families, six units. And 1646 had nine units.

Mayor: Go ahead.

Commissioner Fariello: 1644 had six units. 1646 had nine units.

Mayor: So, six units in one building and nine units in another building – so a total of 15. Yes.

Question: [inaudible] temporary gas lines set up [inaudible]

Mayor: Either one of you. Either one – were there any temporary gas lines?

McAvoy: We are not aware of any temporary gas lines within our jurisdiction. None.

Commissioner Fariello: We have no permits taken out for any temporary gas lines.

Question: How is the air quality here and should residents be concerned [inaudible]?

Mayor: We spoke to it just before. I don’t know if you were here. In the immediate area of the collapse, you should stay away from that area but you will be staying away from that area because it’s already cordoned off by PD and FDNY. So the immediate area of the collapse – the first responders, who I’d like to note, very bravely always go into those situations, that’s where there are air quality concerns. But not here, not the larger area. Hold on, one second please –

Question: Do you know if there were any foreigners [inaudible] the victims?

Mayor: I don’t think we know yet the citizenship of the individuals. We don’t know yet, we’ll have more information as the day proceeds.

Question: Do you know how the leak turned into an explosion?

Mayor: Again?

Question: How did the leak created the explosion?

Mayor: Do we know how the leak created the explosion? I’m assuming that’s something we need to get a lot more information on.

Commissioner Cassano: We have our fire marshals on the scene and, right now, they can’t get anywhere near where the source of ignition was. Once we get through the debris and the rubble, we will get down to that basement and see where we think it was ignited.

Question: [inaudible] Are they experiencing any fatigue [inaudible]

Commissioner Cassano: We are relieving the units that were here first on the scene, because, again, it’s very laborious moving debris and heavy equipment around. So we are in the process of relieving the first two units that were here. It’s a very difficult and arduous task.

Question: Are they among any of the injured?

Commissioner Cassano: No. No, we didn’t get here until after the explosion took place. We were here two minutes later.

Mayor: Alright, thank you everyone. We’ll have updates later in the day.