Return to Transcripts main page


New York City Explosion; Harlem Building Collapses; Live Coverage of NYC Press Conference

Aired March 12, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield with CNN, reporting live. And welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

I'm at the scene of an extraordinary building explosion in East Harlem in New York City. And as you can probably tell from the scene around me, there's not only a little bit of ash in the air, but a tremendous amount of smoke. This has been the scene of at least two fatalities, we are told so far, and at least a dozen-plus injuries.

It at this point, the count, 17. That count likely to change, though, because there have been unaccounted for people in this catastrophe. All indications at this point leading to a gas explosion that, in the words of at least one official, effectively left a building that was standing in that location no longer standing in that location.

The mayor, the newly elected mayor of New York City, is going to be giving a news conference and updating the situation and the facts that we know on hand any moment now. Mayor de Blasio is actually on this location as we speak.

The pictures you're probably seeing tell the story, if not tell the emotion in this area. The smoke pouring from a building. The effect of that explosion heard and felt for blocks upon blocks. There were reports that even said there was one witness saying that she could see actual people coming from the buildings. That's from one of the local news reports on the scene.

And we can tell you right now that the New York City Police Department is confirming that the two fatalities are two women. We just actually moments ago saw the medical examiner pulling out of the location where we are right now. We are unclear as to whether there was a body in that vehicle or whether that was just an investigative vehicle. But clearly the information is just coming in trickles. Here are some of the things I can tell you right off-hand.

President Obama has been briefed in Washington on the situation in New York City northern Manhattan here in east Harlem. I don't have any other comment on whether the president has said anything about this, but all we know at this point is that the president has been briefed.

Another detail I can tell you about the scene -- coming close to the scene and the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. There was one moment that was reminiscent of reporting on 9/11, speakers had been turned outside of a delicatessen broadcasting one of the local news stations to people who were gathered outside. So many people have fled their buildings and are milling around on the streets (ph) wondering what to do next and where to go next. And they were listening intently on all of the news as it was pouring out of the speakers that had been turned out of the building.

The FBI and arson squads are on location, even though at this point the officials are saying that there is nothing that's leading them to think this is terror and all indications leading this to be an incredible gas explosion. Mostly because of the concussive -- the sheer concussive force. There are buildings for blocks that lost their window, blown out into the street. Glass and debris gathered all about the street. The power just really something to behold. And this entire community feeling and smelling the effects of it, even this long after the effect. And this was an explosion that happened just after 9:00, close to 9:30.

What's remarkable is that a call came in to Con Edison about a report of a gas leak and CNN has had confirmation that Con Edison dispatched a truck two minutes after that call of the smell of gas. And it was only several minutes after that that this intense explosion happened. We are also told that that Con Edison truck responding to the smell of the gas leak did not even get a chance to make it to the scene on time.

Perhaps there is one saving grace to the time of this explosion being at 9:30. There is a very good chance that many of the occupants of this six-story residential building may have actually left the building for work or other locales. But hopefully there weren't as many people in that building as there could have been at the time of that tremendous explosion.

The Red Cross is also on the scene. I have personally spoken to a number of residents who have asked me, where can I get a dust mask? Where can I get an -- let me just show you - I don't know if you've got an image of me up on camera, but if you could take my shot live right now, this is one of the things that's being handed out to people on the scene. And for those who don't have a scarf or a jacket pulled around their mouths to try to deal with the intense smoke, they're passing these out to a lot of residents. And I actually asked one resident where she got her mask and she said she's a nurse and she just grabbed it right away.

A couple of other things that you should know, as well, if you're just tuning in. The scene of this location had a Spanish church, a Spanish Christian church and also a piano store at its base level and then mostly residential units above that.

We have some of the pictures that we're showing to you live are firefighters who are picking through the rubble, undoubtedly for any kind of clues in this investigation that is only in its naissance at this time. We are only a few hours into this.

I want to take you to Don Lemon, who's joining me on the telephone, my colleague, who's also reporting from the scene.

Don, I'm not sure how close you were able to get. I'm at a location at 116th and Madison. And since I haven't been able to check in with you or know where you are, what's your vantage point?

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Ashleigh, I'm right here. I'm at 117th and Park right - I'm looking dead at it. And I have one of those masks that they have been -- actually NYPD actually handed me a mask. The only reason I'm able to stay here is because I'm at the Community Board (INAUDIBLE) Borough of Manhattan office, which is Councilwoman Inez Dickens office. I just had her here to put here on the phone with you and she has to run off. She had to run off to that press conference.

And she gave me an update. She said, when this happened, all of the council people, the speaker, the office of emergency management, everyone was contacted immediately. She says they updated her. And what they said was - I asked her specifically, I said, why are they frantically -- Con Edison, which is the power and electric and gas company, why are they frantically trying to get to (INAUDIBLE) here.

They're using jackhammers to dig into the ground here (INAUDIBLE). And she said because they told them two things they were concerned about. One, that it was some sort of criminal activity, that something nefarious, and number two that it was a gas explosion. At this point they're leaning towards gas explosion. And she said -- so they wanted to take everyone on the block, two blocks out, and move everyone out.

So the first block, the 100 - the 1500 block of Park Avenue, they moved everyone out of that block after the explosion. You couldn't stay there if you wanted to. And then the 1600 block, which is where I'm standing on the corner, which is between 17 -- 117th Street, they started moving people out. They came in, police officers, to every building, and said, hey, listen, we have to get you out. You've got to get out of the building. They were waking people up, knocking on their doors. And they also had masks for them. And the only reason that I was able to stay, they recognized me from CNN, the councilwoman, and pulled me in to the community board and started giving me an update on the information.

I had a gentleman here earlier, Ashleigh, who witnessed the emergency personnel taking people away. Mr. Lowxanno (ph), who owns a tax company just a half a block away from this explosion. He said he had just parked his car right in front of this building, which is a church and a piano company. He said he had just parked his car there, walked to his building, put the key in the door. As soon as he put the key in the door, the explosion happened. He got -- opened his door, fell into his building, and he said debris started flying everywhere, people started screaming and started - and they started rushing around.

What he said is that he heard two explosions. I don't know if that was the first explosion and then he heard a reverberation or if it was indeed two explosions. And he said he immediately fell to the ground and then got back up and looked out of the door and then he said he saw people rushing in to try to help. And then he said almost immediately there were emergency personnel on the scene.

So right now, because I think I'm a lot closer to you, I'm just going to explain to you what I see as I stand here on the corner of 117th Street and Park Avenue. I see a number of different fire trucks. I see people on that metro north train track, which is a huge commuter rail system in this area. I also see people on the other side of Park Avenue, which is a huge avenue. It's a double avenue here. You've got a big median down the middle and the train track runs down the middle.

There are people from the NYPD standing on top of those buildings and there are people from the fire department also standing on top of those building. People on the railroad track. And then there are two hook and ladder trucks that are very near the scene.

And there are fire -- members of the fire - there's a backhoe that is pulling the debris, the bricks, out of the building or away from the building and there are firefighters with their hands removing bricks and I would imagine they're digging through that rubble and they're looking for people, Ashleigh. And, again, the smoke still pouring out of that building.

BANFIELD: All right, Don Lemon reporting for us live. Get back to us with further details, if you could.

As Don has been reporting, I can even see the wafts of smoke and ash coming by us. It is thicker than it was when I first got here. It is getting hard for a lot of the people who are outside, a lot of these residents that have been pouring out of their buildings.

Mayor de Blasio is here, on location, getting ready to give a live news conference. And we're going to have our live cameras trained on his most recent update with the latest facts and information out of this. But as we know it now, if you're just joining us, two people dead, two women, according to the NYPD, at least a dozen more are injured. The last count was 17 people injured. The injuries, we are told, many of them minor. But we don't have a full picture yet. And it is unclear as to whether they have been able to account for everybody who's either been hurt or, God forbid, killed in this very intense explosion. A gas explosion in east Harlem.

We're going to take a quick break here on CNN and we'll be right (INAUDIBLE).


BANFIELD: Again, welcome -- this is Ashleigh Banfield reporting live in east Harlem, in New York City. Welcome to our viewers in America and right around the world as we continue to update this breaking news in Manhattan. We are awaiting a live news conference from the new mayor of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who himself has come to this location. It is thick with smoke. It is still blowing ash in the neighborhood. And we are told he is getting ready to update the most current information.

At this point, we know two people dead, both of them women. We also know there are 17 injured, which was our last count to our Poppy Harlow as the NYPD had told her, 17 injured. And still, the search goes on for those who may be unaccounted for.

Andy Peralta lives within a half a block and watched the actual explosion happen. Your windows were blown out and you could see bricks blowing?


BANFIELD: Tell me what it looked like.

PERALTA: It looked like when they came over like first you feel like this (INAUDIBLE), like the heat from the explosion.


PERALTA: Something hit like -- like something hit me when the explosion came (INAUDIBLE).

BANFIELD: Just let me explain. There's a Con Edison truck that's passing between us and into the scene right now. And Con Edison has been on location. All indications for those just joining us, that this was a gas explosion. Con Edison responsible for that. So clearly that is not an unusual sight.

PERALTA: And when I -- when the explosion came over, like I get (ph) shocked (ph). I called 911. I see brick flying away. It's -

BANFIELD: Did you - did you - did you leave your apartment right away?

PERALTA: I leave my apartment.

BANFIELD: Right away.

PERALTA: Yes. And I leave in underwear when I realized when people told me that I was in underwear.

BANFIELD: You left your apartment not even dressed?

PERALTA: Not even dressed. When I went into --

BANFIELD: You were - was that a surprise (ph)?

PERALTA: That surprised because, again, like shocked. I would think it was a terrorist attack. Because you don't expect anything happening around here.

BANFIELD: And how many of your neighbors were doing the same thing?

PERALTA: Everybody from my neighbor -- went to first thing downstairs when they told me they look up.

BANFIELD: Andy, good luck.


BANFIELD: I hope everything's OK with where you live and that you get your building repaired.


BANFIELD: And that your neighbors, for the most part, are going to be OK. But I'm sorry about what's happened here.

PERALTA: OK. OK, thank you.

BANFIELD: Andy was joining us live.

We also met Julian (ph) and Mike and they were just literate next to where I am in a Laundromat.

You've even got your laundry. Tell me what happened when that explosion hit.

JULIAN, WITNESS: I mean the - honestly, the pressure in my ears was so much that all I remember -- like, I fell on to my laundry cart. My cart is broken. And then the ceiling tiles started to fall down. The - all - the back wall was lined with mirrors. The mirrors started to shatter and fall down, like the sheets of the mirrors. And so there were only a few of us in there and we all started to run toward the door.

BANFIELD: There was an elderly lady who did not.

JULIAN: She was worried about her stuff. She didn't want anyone to take her laundry, I guess.

BANFIELD: And what did you do?

JULIAN: I told her, no, we have to go. We don't know what happened. We need to get out of here. And I just made her get out of the laundry.

BANFIELD: You physically geared her towards the --

JULIAN: Yeah, I kind of like steered her. I didn't push her.

BANFIELD: And just quickly, Mike, I know that you are - you're friends. You were just a few blocks away, as well, in your apartment.

MIKE, WITNESS: I was in the apartment and I heard the explosion. That's when I called her and she told me that the ceiling of the Laundromat is falling on her. So that's when I got dressed and just ran out.

BANFIELD: And, that far away, you felt that concussion, as well.

MIKE : Oh, yeah, it was deafening, very loud.

BANFIELD: Sorry for both of you, and the best of luck.

I met them on the street. They're out on the street as hundreds and hundreds of people are, many of them wondering what are they going to do.

And in just a little bit on this program, you're going to meet a family with two babies, absolutely unclear as to where they're going to be tonight, many of them wondering, Who is going to help us? How are we going to get back into our building with two small children? We're waiting for the mayor to update us on all of this, not only what's going to happen to the residents who are so displaced, what the latest count is on those dead and injured and just exactly what happened in East Harlem in northern Manhattan that caused such calamity and such a frightening scene in a city that is very, very attuned to things like this when they happen.

We're back right after this, live on CNN.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), NEW YORK CITY: ... Mark-Viverito represents this district in the city council. With us are other key leaders 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 Ed, who is with us, and thank Council Member Inez Dickens for being here. And we have Representative -- Congressman Rangel's office, as well.

So today at approximately 9:30 a.m., there was a major explosion that destroyed two buildings. 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.

Fire is now up to the 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 --


DE BLASIO: Now, I would like to emphasize, everything I'm telling you is based on preliminary information. This 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 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 have 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 is going to be a thorough search to try and find or locate each individual.

This is going to be an extended operation. This 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 in the surrounding buildings, checked the 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 has 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 a lot of people from the buildings that collapsed wondering where their loved ones are.

Speaker Mark-Viverito has been 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 is 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 311.

So, for relatives, family members looking for information about loved ones who might have been in either of these buildings, they can call 311.

With that, let me bring forward Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano to give more details on the situation and the response.

SAL CASSANO, NEW YORK CITY FIRE COMMISSIONER: 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 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 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.

We have to be very careful. The building is in a very precarious position. We want to make sure that everybody is in there, 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, and we want to make sure that we can get through that debris as quickly as possible.

DE BLASIO: Thank you very much, Mr. Commissioner.

I would like call forward Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.


As 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 about 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 is clearly 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 are interacting with some of the impacted families, trying to ensure they get the proper support possible. 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 still unaccounted for, and that is of concern, but we also have to think about people that have been --

BANFIELD: So the mayor of New York city, Bill de Blasio, updating the situation, live on location. And I just want to tell you, over the course of his ad hoc news conference, the air has somewhat cleared. I'll be honest with you. The smoke seems to be clearing. It is not nearly as choking as it was before.

Pretty much everyone who was around me has been wearing some kind of a mask or a covering over their mouths, and that seems to be abating somewhat.

From my vantage point, I can't tell you that that's because this fire is under control or out. But I can tell you, the smoke situation definitely has changed. The wind may have completely changed, as well, as one of the emergency crews backs up from behind me.

The highlight of Mayor de Blasio's news conference was that there are 250 NYPD firefighters on location, not only that, but the number of missing still unknown, but that there are those who are missing, and that this is going to be a thorough search, as it continues through the rubble of this collapsed building right now.

But clearly, the concern now for those missing and the two who are confirmed dead.

We are back right after this, live on CNN.