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One Fatality, Multiple Injuries in NYC Building Blast; Neighbors Report Smell of Gas Before Blast; Missing Malaysian Flight Remains Mystery

Aired March 12, 2014 - 11:00   ET



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Right now, we are dealing with a situation, Michaela Pereira and Chris Cuomo here with you. John Berman is on the scene of a massive explosion in New York City.

We believe two buildings have been affected, brought down, pretty much to the ground, by what is believed to be a massive gas explosion. Local authorities are saying there's no reason to believe it's connected to terror or an explosive devise.

But here is the situation as we understand it. A bomb squad is on the scene because they are trained in understanding explosion of this kind, as well. There are at least 160 firefighters there. It is a five-alarm fire.

In terms of injuries, that's the obvious concern. Local hospitals have received a couple. We have seen some people come out of the building on stretchers, but it's too early for that kind of information.

If you take a look at Google Maps, we'll show you what these two buildings were that are now gone. This is about 116th, 117th Street on Park Avenue in Manhattan. That may not mean much to you, but it is the east side of Manhattan, heavily residential. The buildings were multi- use, older buildings from before the 1940s.

On this storefront level of one was a Spanish church, the other one, a piano repair shop. They are -- if you look at this picture right now, Michaela, you can direct people to where they are, obviously, just a little bit up the block from here.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Right and right around the corner from that, Chris, is a much more heavily traffic -- foot traffic area, a commerce area. This is probably a quieter street where this happened.

But, again, it is a concern because of all of those buildings that have those shared walls. We know this is an urban area. There are so many apartments, as you mentioned, multi-use buildings.

We have also learned that at least one school in the area, not nearby, has been told to shelter in place.

We are going to work some more information and find out about other areas schools.

We have got our man on the ground. John Berman is in Harlem @ THIS HOUR and can tell us what he knows live from the scene.

John, can you hear us?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Michaela, we were just told by the NYPD, 1644 Park Avenue appears to not be there anymore. It just simply appears to be gone.

There is so much smoke out here. It is spanning for blocks and blocks. You have people wearing masks to protect themselves from inhaling it. It is very dangerous, I imagine, to get too close without the mask.

We are a safe distance right here, about a block and a half away. You can see the crews working in smoke and soot and ash just covering the windshields of cars.

Con Edison crews, the power company here now. Just a short time ago, you all reported, there is the cents from Con Edison that perhaps this blast was caused by a gas leak.

These two buildings that were affected, one, as I just said, not there anymore. We do not know the condition of the second building. Right now, they are searching these buildings to find out if there are people inside. The NYPD told us they simply do not know at this point.

But it is well manned up here. Thirty-nine units from the NYPD, some -- from the New York fire department, I should say, some 168 members working the scene of what was a piano store, what was a Spanish Christian church with apartments on top of them. And, now, one of those buildings simply gone.

I should tell you, I used to live about two blocks from here. Michaela, I know you live not too far from here either. This is a residential area. This is a place where people are walking about the streets freely.

Our Poppy Harlow has been working the streets right now, talking to people. She has seen people with blood on their head. We've been told 11 injuries so far.

Our Don Lemon, I think we have Don on the phone right now. Don is with someone, I believe, who witnessed this blast. Don?

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Hey, Don, I am here. I am actually very, very close to the blast.

We are with a business owner. We're less than a block, and I can see it as clear as day. You've got firefighters up on the hook-and-ladder. You've got Metro North -- the Metro North train has been shut down in both directions here. There are police officers up on the Metro North train tracks.

Police officers here where I am wearing dust masks, and some of them are wearing air masks, and they are gingerly going through the brick and the mortar from this building.

And you can see the building is completely blacked out. I sent several pictures of the video back and it is still smoking from where I can see.

George Lezano (ph) lives less than a block -- his business is less than a block away. We are standing inside of his business now. He says it has to be 1552. His address is 1600, pretty much in the same part of the block as that block.

So you said, what, just about 9:00, what did you hear, George?

GEORGE LEZANO (PH), HARLEM BUSINESS OWNER (via telephone): It was shaking. I got scared. I left my car parked over there.

LEMON: You have on your jacket, I can see, George had -- you've got some debris. Things were still falling.

You said your car -- you tried to go get your car which is in the same block.

LEZANO (PH): No, I just left parking.

LEMON: Just parked it.

LEZANO (PH): When I went to open my office -- when I opened my office, it started the blast, so everything started shaking, too strong. (Inaudible)

LEMON: Was there dust? Was there smoke? (Inaudible) like an explosion?

LEZANO (PH): (Inaudible) explosion (inaudible) happened.

LEMON: There was dust going everywhere.

LEZANO (PH): Everywhere. Look at my office over here. Look. Look.

LEMON: He is pointing out we are standing in his office. Again, it's less than a block away. We do see there is dust and soot everywhere. And the closer you get to the blast, the thicker it gets.

But he said (inaudible), he was sticking his key in his door, unlocking his office --

LEZANO (PH): (Inaudible) 11 bodies to the hospital for emergency.

LEMON: You saw them removing --

LEZANO (PH): Yes, I saw five different person, bleeding all over, and they got moved. (Inaudible).

LEMON: He is saying that he saw them removing bodies.

From what we know right now, the people have been taken to four hospitals. The latest is that it's 16 injuries, 12 of them minor, taken to four hospitals. I don't know from my vantage point if there are any confirmations of anything that -- say again.

LEZANO (PH). They was under the bricks. You know, the four floors fall down on top of the people. (Inaudible).

LEMON: So you saw them removing the people?

LEZANO (PH): Yes, I saw the police and the fire department. They helping a lot to remove the people to the hospital, very bad.

LEMON: How long did it take for people to get here?

LEZANO (PH): About -- no, no, they was here in about two, three minutes.

LEMON: OK, that's George Lezano (ph), who is a business owner who's really, like I said, less than a block away.

And I have a very good vantage point. And they're still going through. You can probably, Michaela and John, hear the jack hammering.

But I'm going to toss it back to you if you have any questions.

BERMAN: Don, thank you so much.

Just a few moments ago, behind me, I don't know if you can make it out now because the smoke is so thick, we saw crews working on the railroad tracks that go up and down Park Avenue.

This is significant. This is a main transportation artery. All the trains that go to Connecticut, and many of the trains that head to Westchester County in New York, the commuter trains, pass on those tracks.

They are shut down right now, which means that depending on how long this lasts, thousands and thousands and thousands of commuters will be affected by this blast. That's just one side effect from it.

Of course, the main effect is on these buildings, one of which, as we said, is simply not there anymore. 1644 Park Avenue, which was a five- story building, is now gone. 1646, the building next to it, we do not know the status of that.

Again, the police telling our Poppy Harlow just moments ago, they are searching these buildings to find out if there were in residents inside at the time. We're trying to get more information on that.

You can hear the helicopters hovering overhead right now, enormous amounts of personnel on this scene, firefighters working every possible angle here. We have been told that the fire was mostly out.

I have covered a lot of buildings that have gone down, both in this country and others, and I will tell you, the remarkable feature of this, right now, is the smoke. Smoke is simply everywhere around here and it is very, very thick. We did just get some information from one of our producers who say that investigators have been told by neighbors -- investigators have been told by neighbors that they did smell gas prior to the explosion. They did smell gas prior to the explosion.

And that would jive with what we have been hearing right now with the Con Edison crews on the scene and the news it possibly was some kind of gas leak before. Neighbors were smelling gas.

The NY -- the fire department here in New York is now confirming 16 injuries, 16 injuries at the scene. They range from minor to serious, although we are told that none at this point are critical or life threatening.

So, 16 injuries ranging from minor to serious, none critical or life threatening, we will see if that holds.

The power of this blast, I will say -- if the power of this blast makes it unlikely that there would be some kind of problem.

We are being moved here by police. Who am I going to now?

Holly Mills? Let's go to Holly Mills on the phone right now. Molley Mills on the phone right now. Molley, what can you tell us?

MOLLEY MILLS, WITNESS (via telephone): Well, it seems to have died down from my side, but when I first heard the explosion, it was very loud, and I could feel my building rumble like the subway was going under it.

And so I went outside on my terrace, and there was smoke pouring out from the side.

BERMAN: You said the explosion was very loud. Could you feel it, a blast of this size with windows shaking?


BERMAN: Go ahead.

MILLS: No, not like that, but I'm way over the on the west side, so -- but I certainly heard it, and it was very loud. And I could feel it, but it only felt like the subway was going under my building.

BERMAN: So, at that point, how long did it take you to find out what was happening and how long did it take you to find some of this smoke, which I have to say right now is simply pouring out everywhere where I'm standing right now?

MILLS: Five minutes.

BERMAN: Five minutes. Five minutes for it to spread. And how far away from -- how far away are you from the blast?

MILLS: I am over on Eighth Avenue, so I'm quite a way away. I just went straight outside to see what was going on, and I could see it coming up on the horizon.

And, as I watched it, obviously, it got thicker and blacker, and then the sirens were just going crazy. And the helicopter started coming. And it was just crazy over there.

BERMAN: It is crazy. It's crazy where I'm standing right now.

Molley Mills, thank you so much.

And I should tell you, again, I've been talking about the smoke here. It does span for blocks around the city. It does span for blocks around the city. And we were told that you could feel the blast all the way across the city.

Now, we did just get information that there has been one death, one death from this blast, which is one block away from me now. It was a male of unknown age in the Harlem building collapse.

A male of unknown age now has died from this blast, 1644 Park Avenue, that building now gone.

Just moments ago, we'd been told that there were 16 people injured ranging from minor to serious, although none critical. Now we do know one person has been killed in this blast.

We're going to do some more reporting and tell you everything that's going on on this scene, right after the break.


BERMAN: I would like to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm John Berman. I'm standing about a block and a half away now from what was a large, large blast.

Two buildings affected in this blast in New York City. One of the buildings, a five-story building, 1644 Park Avenue, is gone. The NYPD telling CNN 1644 Park Avenue appears not to be there anymore.

There has been one fatality in this blast we know of, one confirmed death. Earlier we've been told 16 injuries. Not sure if one of those injured had died, but one death. More than a dozen injured right now.

We're told that neighbors living close to this scene -- again, these were two storefronts. One was a piano store. One was a Spanish Christian church. There were apartments on top of these storefronts. We are told that neighbors around these buildings had smelled gas prior to the explosion. There are Con Edison crews on the scene here investigating. We had been told earlier, CNN had Chris Cuomo reporting that Con Edison was saying they thought at this point it did look like some kind of gas explosion. Bombs squad had been deployed to the scene here, but that had been mostly a precautionary measure. No known nexus to terrorism of any kind.

A huge, huge, law enforcement and first responder situation going on here. 39 fire units, 168 personnel here right now. The smoke momentarily just cleared. One of the striking features had been the amount of smoke that had been passing by here. It was simply covering the area.

The other notable feature, I don't know if you can see it, back near those buildings, train tracks -- one of the main arteries coming in and out of New York City for the commuter rail. All of the trains going to Connecticut and many heading elsewhere in New York go through here. Right now, that's shut down. So thousands and thousands of commuters could be affected by this blast.

I want to bring in my colleague, Don Lemon, who doesn't live too, too far from here. Don, what are you seeing?

LEMON (via telephone): Hey, I'm actually a half a block away from it. I mean, it's an amazing vantage point that I have here. And I've been talking to workers and people who live in the area who were here when it happened. They are, as a matter of fact, in the building I'm standing in and the one right next door. There are people here inspecting damages; it appears that there's some sort of roof damage here and they're concerned about a collapse. But that's not an official thing, just the people who are here.

Devon Brown (ph) works in the area and he lives in the area. What did you hear, Devon (ph)?

What did you hear, Devon?

DEVON BROWN (PH) (via telephone): I heard two big boom, boom. And I thank God I passed through there, I didn't get it.

LEMON: You said you were on your way to work. You live right around the corner.

BROWN (PH): I live right around the corner. I was on my way to work.

LEMON: People said that they smelled gas. Did you smell any gas?

BROWN (PH): I didn't smell no gas. I just heard two big boom boom, as everybody started running crazy outside. That's it.

LEMON: What happened, did you see then -- Mr. Gonzalez (ph) said he saw them taking people away in an ambulance.

BROWN (PH): Yes, I seen them take at least about 30 people or more in an ambulance. And I still think there's bodies still underneath them bricks.

LEMON: Well, that's from people who are living in the area here. But I do -- we don't know if there are people still underneath the bricks, obviously. But I can say from my vantage point, I could still see members of the fire department, police officers going hand by hand, picking through debris.

And also something that I noticed that I think is very important is that Con Ed -- Edison is here with the Electric & Gas company. And they are frantically using a jackhammer and pick to try to get to something. I don't know if they're trying to shut off a gas leak, shut off a valve or something. But they're frantically on this corner of 117th and Park trying to go through -- trying to get at something, the electric crews here.

And just above them, I can see members of the New York City Police Department, also members of the mass transit, on New York City mass transit, on the railroad track for Metro North, which is a major commuter artery in this area. They are standing there; they have shut that down completely. I'm not sure, there's also a subway system that is very close to here, the 4, 5 and 6 trains, which is the green line, which is another major commuter system in New York City. Metor North, of course, runs the northeast corridor.

But as I'm looking at this building, it's like looking at my next-door neighbor here. I'm standing and I see smoke still pouring out of this building. I see a tower, ladder, number 13 and a number of other fire crews on this scene going through. And that's the very latest from here, John. I'm going to try to get more information and more eyewitnesses from people who were either at work or in their apartments when it happened.

BERMAN: OK, Don, thank you so much. Thank you for your view and your vantage point over there. I'm about a block away, not far actually from where Don's standing. And I'm joined by CNN's Poppy Harlow, who's been on the scene for some time now, and also Andrew Bedilla (ph). You guys have been walking around here. Just give me a sense of what you've been seeing,

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, I got here and immediately met Andrew, who's an independent journalist who lives in the neighborhood. You live at 118 -- I mean, 108.


HARLOW: 108, not far. Obviously, for the first time, the smoke is clearing a bit from what we saw when we arrived here, a lot clearer, when we could hardly see a few feet into this block. But the first thing that Andrew told me was there was a big fire on this exact block a few years ago. Not known what caused it. But you have a bigger issue with what you think is happening here. We don't want to make any assumptions here, but you said -- tell me what you said in terms of how these buildings are taken care of.

BEDILLA: Well, the way I got into the work that I'm doing is basically trying to advocate on these issues. Gentrification has been affecting this neighborhood in a big way. And when gentrification occurs, you have landlords that would really prefer not to make the repairs. And on 101 East 116th Street, we were covering a group of residents there, on 101 East 116th Street, not too long ago, who were dealing with a whole bunch of building complaints.

There was a fire that affected the rent-controlled apartments. And that situation never ended up getting resolved. So this idea of there being building complaints. This idea of there being unsafe conditions. These are 100-year-old buildings. So you need to take care of them. And when you don't take care of them, things like this will happen. And it's unfortunate that it takes an explosion like this for CNN and every single other media entity under the sun to finally come to this -- (CROSSTALK)

HARLOW: And we don't know obviously what caused this. We know that there was smell of gas. Con Edison came up. We can't make any assumptions right now at all. But we do know that there was a fire on this same block, a big one -- you witnessed it a few years ago.

BEDILLA: I didn't witness it but I was recording some of the tenants. The tenants there were advocating on this issue because they were having trouble with their landlord; they were attempting to push them out and they weren't making the adequate repairs. So there was a fire that affected some of the rent-controlled apartments on 101 East 116th Street. And that was two years ago.

And it's clear that --

BERMAN: Got you. All right, Andrew, thank you so much. Of course, obviously, we are looking into this right now. What we do know is neighbors were saying they did smell gas prior to this explosion. What we have been reporting now is one person has been killed in this blast. And one building, simply not there anymore.

We're going to do some more reporting on this. We'll tell you what we find out right after the break.


PEREIRA: All right, welcome back @ THIS HOUR. We're continuing our coverage out of a very serious situation in East Harlem in Manhattan, New York. There has been an explosion that has involved two buildings that we know of at the very least. You're getting a live look here, compliments of News 12 Long Island.

We know right now that one building, 1644 Park Avenue, is essentially gone. Chris Cuomo alongside me. We can see a picture now, on the left side of your screen, of what -- these what we're calling multi- use buildings looked like before this explosion that happened shortly before 9:00.

The information we have right now -- we do know that it is now a fatality. We know that one man, a man of an undisclosed age, has been killed because of the collapse of this building, and there are several other injuries varying from serious to minor.

CUOMO: Right now, the numbers are very early. It's a complicated situation. We know there are at least a double -- a dozen or so, we're saying 16 on the screen there, but it's a very fluid situation. There are over 150 firefighters on the ground. But you have to remember, where the buildings used to be, there's now a big pile of debris underneath it. There's an unknown depth of basement, so it's difficult for firefighters to go on it.

They're fighting it mainly from above. That's why you see the ladders. The being smoke being white they believe is a function of it being building materials. The cause they believe to be a gas explosion. The NYPD and the firefighters have been very clear to say there is no connection to terror because there were early reports of the bomb squad being there, but it was just precautionary.

PEREIRA: We were hearing reports that neighbors, telling "New York Daily News", that they've been smelling gas in the area for several weeks. We know that Con Ed, who supplies the gas to these residential buildings in this area, did get a call about a possible gas leak or a gas smell. They dispatched a truck but that truck was on en route when the explosion happened.

We're going to keep an eye on this situation. We've got reporters on the ground. John Berman, Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow re there. They're gathering information to bring to you. But we also want to go back to our other top story.

CUOMO: All right, we've been following where this missing Malaysian flight 370 is and the difficult question right now is, it's hard to find something if you don't know where to look. And sadly it appears that Malaysian officials don't know exactly where Flight 370 was when it vanished with 239 souls on board.

The confusion centers on whether the plane radically changed course around the time it lost contact with air traffic control or not. So what do we know? The Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 Saturday morning. It was heading to Beijing. It's about an hour later in the timeline. And then what happens then is unclear. The plane seems to have veered sharply West, going back over Malaysia in the direction of the Strait of Malacca. That's hundreds of miles off course.

That is the scenario we're hearing most recently from a senior Malaysian Air Force official, but other officials say there's no evidence of that happening. Thus, the confusion. So let's try to make sense of all of it now.

PEREIRA: Joining us to try and dig through some of this, we've got Mary Schiavo -- she's a former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation -- and of course our own Richard Quest. Always good to have both of your voices on this show.