NEW YORK -- At least two women were killed and up to 18 people injured Wednesday when a gas leak triggered a "major explosion" that leveled two five-story buildings in East Harlem, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The mayor, speaking to reporters at the scene, said several people are still missing, but cautioned that many of them may simply be safe at a different location.
Raphael Ruiz- Moran stood outside with other onlookers waiting to get what information he could. His uncle and other family members live about half a block from the scene and so far, he got no answer when he tried to call.
The buildings -- now flattened -- house a Spanish Christian Church and a piano repair store at the East Harlem address on Park Avenue between 114th street and 116th Street.
The mayor said the explosion occurred at 9:31 a.m. ET, only minutes before a Con Ed utilities team arrived on the scene to check on reports of a natural gas leak.
"This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people," de Blasio said. "We have lost two people already."
He said there will be a thorough search of the rubble after the 200 firefighters bring the fire under control.
As residents gathered near the scene, white smoke billowed up from the debris in waves and left a chalky taste in the air.
De Blasio said the fire units arrived within two minutes of the explosion, which rocked the neighborhood.
Ruiz-Moran, who lives a block from the scene and he ran outside when he heard the blast, said he got within half a block of the building.
"I saw the people on the ground " said Ruiz-Moran, 38. "They had cuts. There was glass."
About two minutes after the initial blast, Ruiz-Moran said, he saw a burst of fire, which lasted a couple of minutes.
Some local residents, huddling nearby, broke down at the scene of the devastation.
"For weeks we've been smelling gas," Ashley Rivera, 21, told the Daily News as she fought back tears. "We saw people flying out of the window. ... Those are my neighbors."
"It sounded like thunder," said Malcolm Jones, 42, who was home at East 159th Street and Fifth Avenue when he heard the blast.
Anthony Saunders, who also lives nearby, said "the doors rattled, the windows rattled." He said he rushed to the scene, which was filled with an acidic smell like burning rubber.
Saunders said building was older, likely full of plywood and plaster. "it's a 100-year-old building," he said. "It's pretty much kindling."
Metro service was suspended, officials said, because of debris from the buildings that landed on the elevated train tracks across the street.
Eoin Hayes, 26, said the explosion shook his apartment building almost 10 blocks away.
"I was in my bedroom and the explosion went off, it kind of shook the whole building," Hayes told the Associated Press. "You could feel the vibrations going through the building. I ran to the window and saw the fire and the smoke going up and the sirens start."