Firefighters were digging a tunnel through a huge pile of debris as they searched for possible victims after part of a seven-story building in the Bronx suddenly collapsed Monday afternoon.
Fire officials said there was no immediate confirmation of injuries. “We don’t know if anyone is trapped down there. Let’s hope not,” John J. Hodgens, the department head, said at a news conference Monday evening near the 46-unit building in the Morris Heights section.
Chief Hodgens said officials did not yet know what caused the partial collapse. “We are in search of life,” he said. “That’s our main focus right now.”
Initial photographs and videos the showrooms on the corner of the building at 1915 Billingsley Terrace were exposed, almost as if the walls had been torn away. Evidence of lives shattered by the partial collapse peeked out from the tangle of metal and wood.
On the street, walls and bricks lay haphazardly under apartments now exposed to the cold afternoon air.
Norma Arias, who lives on the first floor and has resided in the building since 2009, said she had just returned from the bodega, where she had gone to buy cilantro, when she heard a loud boom.
A neighbor ran down the hall shouting, “Everyone get out. The building is collapsing,” Ms. Arias, 69, said.
Ms. Arias said she grabbed her passport and ID and ran outside.
“I almost died in that collapse,” she said.
Maridelsa Fana, 50, a school bus driver who lives on the third floor, was waiting at the traffic lights when the building collapsed. She said she was looking for a place to park her empty bus when she looked in the rearview mirror and saw debris falling and heard what sounded like a huge explosion.
She stepped on the accelerator, terrified the building would collapse onto the bus, then bolted out the passenger-side door.
“I’m still shaking,” Ms. Fana said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Residents have been evacuated to a nearby school while firefighters continue their search.
Fire officials said it arrived in less than two minutes and warned that the investigation into the collapse was at a preliminary stage. Laura Kavanagh, the fire commissioner, said a dog unit had been brought in to help search for anyone who might be trapped. A drone was also used to facilitate the searches.
Emergency workers will remain “until we find someone or confirm that there is no one under that rubble”, Commissioner Kavanagh said.
There have been questions about the building’s safety for years, according to city building records. The ground floor has several shops, including a market on the corner of West Burnside Avenue and Phelan Place.
Ms. Fana, the third-floor resident, said people had been complaining about the building’s dilapidated state for years.
“People say this place is going to fall apart piece by piece,” Ms. Fana said. “But no one imagined it.”
He believes his apartment is undamaged, but said he didn’t want to go back inside.
“No one will want to stay there now,” he said. “No one will want to sleep there.”
Flor Jimimian, owner of J&G Multiservices, a ground-floor tax preparation office, said the collapse occurred moments after a major water leak inside the first-floor market. He said that within 20 seconds of her leaving the store to inspect the leak, the side of the building gave way right in front of her.
“I’m very lucky, now that I think about it,” Ms. Jimimian said.
Just last month, the Department of Buildings issued a $2,400 fine to the building owner for “deteriorated and broken mud sills” at the base of the scaffolding that encased the building. The damage could compromise the “structural stability of the scaffolding causing a potential collapse,” the fine reads.
The building is owned by a limited liability company, 1915 Realty, which purchased the property in 2004 for $3 million, records show. The company could not be reached for comment.
After Monday’s collapse, the city’s emergency management department issued a call for a structural stability check of the site.
In 2020, the building’s brick facade was deemed “unsafe” after a required inspection by a structural engineer revealed “significant damage to the brickwork throughout the facade,” including cracks in the brick. The owner was ordered to repair the exterior; It was not immediately known Monday whether repairs had been completed.
The engineer’s report determined that the deterioration was “generally caused by aging” and exposure to weathering.
“Everyone is freaking out,” said Henry Grullon, 53, who lives nearby. “Everyone I know who lives in the buildings around here says, ‘Oh my God, is my building next?’”
Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.