The blast happened on Second Avenue at the corner of East 7th Street in the East Village around 3:15 p.m.
The FDNY arrived on the scene to find a sushi restaurant on the lower level of 121 2nd Avenue blown out and smoke pluming throughout the five-story building. Then flames began shooting through the roof and quickly spread to a neighboring building, 123 2nd Avenue, which houses the Pommes Frites. Within 10 minutes, both buildings were fully involved.
"Some glass had blown all the way across the street, people injured," said a visibly shaken James Cole, who lives a few buildings down and fled in just a pair of shorts, sneakers and a sport coat after returning from the gym just prior to the explosion. "There were some Good Samaritans who were helping them, and there was a woman trapped on her fire escape, so they helped her get down. One guy, after helping her, ran back up, and it was already starting to smoke, and he was checking each apartment."
Firefighters were pouring water onto the flames, but they had to pull back due to the intensity. The front of the structure came down shortly afterwards, and while the second building was not expected to collapse, the top floor was so brittle that water from the fire hose was chipping off chunks.
Evacuations were underway at all adjoining buildings, and charred rubble littered the sidewalk.
"I was going to have sushi at that place, and then I decided to get Ramen, so it's only like three doors down," a witness named Alexandria said. "And then all the sudden, the whole building shook, and it looked like the glass was like rubber as it shook, and it pushed me forward. And I ran out, and I saw people climbing out of the building. I saw one woman bleeding profusely, and she was out of it and didn't know where she was going."
Fire officials said that at least 12 people are injured, four of them critically, though it was unclear if anyone may have been trapped in the building. Many more people were believed to be hurt, and cadaver dogs were on hand to search the building and rubble once the fire is out and the site deemed stable.
Victims were being taken to Bellevue Hospital and the burn unit at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
"I just heard a boom, and I came out and saw the fire escape had come off the building and the whole bottom of the building came out onto the sidewalk," a witness said. "Everyone was taking off, and it just, boom, and it was smoke, and then it was on fire, instantly on fire...People were panicking, like no one knew what was going on, and it was very shocking. You could feel the ground move."
There were several mayday calls, but no firefighters were immediately injured.
City officials say the preliminary suspicion is a gas leak that caused an explosion and fire. They are investigating reports of work on a gas line inside the kitchen before the fire, and possible reports of a smell of gas before the blast.
Con Edison crews are trying to turn off gas mains in the area. They say it is too early to know if the explosion was gas-related.
All crosstown streets from First Avenue to Third Avenue are closed from East 14th Street to East Houston. Subways are operating normally.