NEW YORK (AP) – An apparent gas explosion at a Harlem apartment building Saturday hurt 20 people – including four children who were critically burned – and blew windows and air conditioners out into the street, officials and witnesses said.

“I heard a big boom. A big explosion. My whole house shook,” said Vannatta Williams, who lives in the apartment building next door. “I thought the whole building was going to come crashing down. That’s what it felt like.”

Witnesses said that residents of the five-story apartment building and the two buildings next it to staggered out covered with blood and debris.

Victor Albino, who was working at a nearby barber shop, kicked in the front door with his co-workers and rescued six people from the smoky building.

“We kicked it in because we heard a lady screaming,” Albino said. “She was like, “My children! My children!”

Albino, 33, and his co-worker brought out the woman’s son and daughter from a first-floor apartment; he said the girl “was about 70 percent burned.”

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said a gas leak in a first-floor apartment caused the blast.

“It does appear to be a gas leak explosion that then causes a flash fire,” he said.

The local utility, Consolidated Edison, had no immediate evidence of a leak, but investigators were waiting until the building was stabilized before going into the apartment, spokeswoman D. Joy Faber said.

Lori Tiabo, who lives next door in a neighborhood of brownstones near Marcus Garvey Park that is home to many African immigrants, said she smelled gas about an hour before the 4 p.m. explosion.

Other residents said that one apartment was operating as an illegal restaurant, cooking and selling takeout food to taxi drivers. City officials said they had no evidence of an illegal business in the building.

The injured included five people with serious burns; all four children were in critical condition at Harlem Hospital, spokeswoman Nicole Beason said. She would not say how old they were; one of the children burned was an infant, Scoppetta said.

The others injured were hospitalized in stable condition, fire officials said. Two firefighters were hurt, including one hit by falling debris when he entered the apartment where the explosion occurred, Scoppetta said.

Buildings Department spokeswoman Robin Brooks said the explosion damaged an interior, load-bearing wall in the building and one next door, but said the buildings were not in danger of collapse.

Three buildings with over 50 apartments were evacuated Saturday, but residents of one of the buildings were being allowed back Saturday evening, Brooks said.

AP-ES-10-06-07 2213EDT


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