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Con Edison: No NatGas Odor Complaints in Months Prior to East Harlem Explosion

Despite some media reports to the contrary, there were no complaints about possible gas leaks from residents of the two buildings destroyed by an explosion and fire in New York City Wednesday in the months preceding the incident, other than one called in just minutes before the blast, according to Con Edison and New York City officials.

Con Edison received a call about a possible gas leak in an adjacent building at 9:13 a.m. EDT Wednesday and dispatched a crew to investigate two minutes later. The explosion occurred at 9:31 a.m., before the utility's employees arrived on the scene. That was the only call reporting a potential gas leak at the location going back nearly 10 months, officials said during a press conference Thursday.

"We've gone back and looked at any gas calls on that block going back three years, and we found two calls prior to yesterday. One was May 17, 2013, one was January 26, 2011, both were on customer equipment internal to the building, and both were repaired at those dates," said Con Edison CEO John McAvoy. "Other than those two, going back three years for the entire block, no reports of any gas leaks from the area."

The city also had not received calls about gas leaks at the buildings at its emergency 911 and non-emergency 311 numbers in the days prior to the explosion.

"We went back 30 days and there was not a report of a gas leak in any of the two buildings...or any of the other surrounding buildings in that area going back 30 days," said Joe Bruno, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

At least seven people have been confirmed dead and 40 were treated for injuries following the explosion and collapse of two buildings Wednesday morning in the East Harlem section of New York City. It is unclear how many people are still missing, officials said. The explosion is believed to have been the result of a gas leak (see Daily GPI, March 12).

With a fire still smoldering at the site more than 24 hours after the blast, an investigation into its cause has already begun, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

"The investigation into this incident is being conducted jointly by the Fire Department's Bureau of Fire Investigations -- meaning the fire marshals -- and the Police Department's Arson and Explosives Unit, and they're now working in collaboration with the National Transportation Safety Board. Because there are still hot spots in the wreckage smoldering, there's still some fire present, the fire fighting operations also continue, and the search and rescue operation obviously has continued," de Blasio said.

There is evidence of a water main break near the blast site, but it isn't clear if that break occurred prior to the blast or was caused by the blast, officials said.

"Everything we're telling you here today is preliminary; it's what we know at this point, but we expect to have a lot more in the next few days, and then there's going to be an ongoing investigation, so information will come as is available, as is confirmed," de Blasio said. "I don't think we pre-judge. We know there was an explosion, but we don't know everything about the lead up to it, and that's why we're doing a thorough investigation. And, by the way, we can only get conclusive evidence when the fire is out, when the rescue is completed and we really get a chance to look at all the facts. So I think it would be premature to speculate. I can tell you that every energy is going to be expended to get down to the truth here and learn from it.

On Wednesday, Edward Foppiano, Con Ed senior vice president of gas operations, said some of the pipes in the area were up to 126 years old, but none were considered to have deteriorated enough to have warranted inclusion in the utility's next three-year pipe replacement program.

Over the past 10 years, the gas main serving the buildings required service only twice, McAvoy said. In 2011, Con Edison replaced about 70 feet of piping in conjunction with a water service replacement, and in 2004 the utility repaired a leak on a coupling on the main. "So, more evidence that there wasn't a historical condition," the CEO said. Two surveys of the cast iron portion of the gas main last month identified no leaks, he said.

A total of 89 residential units and three businesses in seven surrounding buildings were evacuated following the explosion. Natural gas has been turned off to those same buildings, de Blasio said.

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