Two buildings in East Harlem were destroyed on Wednesday morning, March 12, 2014, in an explosion that authorities believe may have been caused by a gas leak. The structures, which were part of a mixed-use development, contained a number of apartments, a piano repair shop and a Christian church.
Recently elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the incident a "tragedy of the worst kind." At least three people were killed and dozens were injured, according to CNN, with several tenants remaining unaccounted for after emergency responders spent a harrowing day searching through the rubble. The search process was interrupted when a sinkhole opened up in front of the destroyed buildings on Wednesday night.
According to a spokesman for New York utility company Con Edison, a resident of a nearby building placed a call to report a possible gas leak just minutes before the explosion took place. A truck dispatched by the company arrived shortly afterward and workers reportedly began tearing up the pavement immediately, seeking to close the gas lines to minimize the risk facing the remaining residential and commercial structures in the area.
Con Edison has announced that it will treat the explosion as though it was the result of a gas leak for the time being, pending the discovery of definitive evidence. The National Transportation Safety Board, which has authority for investigating accidents involving natural gas pipelines, is reportedly sending investigators to examine the site.
This tragic event underscores the extent of the unexpected risks facing residential and commercial buildings. Gas leaks are a particularly prominent concern in older East Coast cities like New York, where much of the pipeline network that is used to transport natural gas to homes and businesses was built before World War II and is decaying.
According to estimates developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, these decades-old cast-iron pipes comprise more than 30,000 miles of the sprawling U.S. gas distribution network. Although a wide range of stakeholders, including lawmakers, labor unions, industry and environmental groups, have expressed support for comprehensive pipeline repairs, the scope of the problem has made it difficult to address.
The Associated press has reported that between 500 and 700 miles of pipelines are repaired each year, meaning it will take more than 40 years to address all of the at-risk pipes. High costs prevent faster progress, with the American Gas Association estimating that it would take more than $82 billion to complete the project.
In light of the risks posed by old pipelines along with numerous other causes, it pays to be prepared by having accurate property value estimates for insured structures, so that potential replacement costs are adequately covered.