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2 missing after New York City building explosion, four critically injured

New York City firefighters work the scene of a large fire and a partial building collapse in the East Village neighborhood of New York on Thursday, March 26, 2015. Orange flames and black smoke are billowing from the facade and roof of the building near several New York University buildings. (AP Photo/Suzanne Mitchell)

New York City firefighters work the scene of a large fire and a partial building collapse in the East Village neighborhood of New York on Thursday, March 26, 2015. Orange flames and black smoke are billowing from the facade and roof of the building near several New York University buildings. (AP Photo/Suzanne Mitchell)

Firefighters on Friday used high-powered water towers to extinguish pockets of fire at the site of an apparent gas explosion in Manhattan's trendy East Village as authorities reported that two people were missing and six others might be, too.

Nineteen people were injured, four critically, after the powerful blast and fire sent flames soaring and debris flying Thursday afternoon. Authorities said they were searching for Nicholas Figueroa, who had been on date at a restaurant in one of three buildings that were leveled, and Moises Lucon, a worker there.

Police said they also were trying to determine whether six other people reported missing — but not thought to have been in the destroyed buildings — were connected to the explosion.

Preliminary evidence suggested that a gas explosion amid plumbing and gas work inside the building was to blame. An hour before the blast, utility company inspectors decided the work being done there was faulty.

On Thursday night, Tyler Figueroa said his 23-year-old brother, Nicholas, had disappeared after going on a date at a sushi restaurant, whose building facade was still intact Friday.

Figueroa said that the couple was paying for the meal when the blast occurred and that his brother's date, who is in the hospital, remembers only stumbling outside before losing consciousness.

"I just pray my brother shows up," he said.

The explosion caused the collapse of three five-story buildings and damage to a fourth, which was seven stories tall, the Fire Department of New York said.

On Friday, firefighters poured gallons of water over the wreckage, a giant wave of crumbled brick, twisted metal, splintered wood and bits of residents' belongings. Rubble was still strewn across parked cars, and a menu from the sushi restaurant and other debris were scattered across the surrounding streets.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials stepped across glass and pools of water from fire hoses as they surveyed the damage and thanked firefighters.

Meanwhile, some residents saw the destruction up close for the first time.

"I'm totally devastated. For my neighbors, for our neighborhood. We all look out for one another," Naomi Machado said, crying she glanced at the rubble on her way to work.

Initial evidence pointed to a gas explosion. A plumber was doing work connected to a gas service upgrade in one of the now-destroyed buildings, and inspectors for Con Edison had been there earlier Thursday, company President Craig Ivey said. But the work failed the inspection, partly because a space for the new meters wasn't big enough, Con Ed said.

A woman listed in city records as the building's managing agent didn't immediately respond to messages Friday. An engineering firm involved in getting permits for work at the building declined to comment.

A contractor who was injured in the blast — and who's facing unrelated charges of bribing an undercover investigator posing as a housing inspector — declined through his lawyer to comment on the circumstances surrounding the explosion. City records show the contractor, Dilber Kukic, got a permit last June for plumbing, flooring, removing partition walls and other work at the building.

Police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said Kukic had tried to help people escape the explosion and had been helpful to authorities.

Kukic was treated and released from a hospital, said his lawyer, Mark Bederow.

"His thoughts are with the people who are injured and the victims of this," Bederow said Friday.

Kukic is a relatively minor player in a 50-person bribery case that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and other authorities unveiled last month. Kukic is accused of paying $600 in cash to try to get housing violations dismissed at two upper Manhattan properties he owned. He has pleaded not guilty.

The blast happened a little over a year after a gas explosion in a building in East Harlem killed eight people and injured about 50. A gas leak was reported shortly before that blast.

De Blasio noted that no one had reported a gas leak before Thursday's explosion. Con Edison said it had surveyed the gas mains on the block Wednesday and found no leaks.

But bystander Blake Farber said he'd been walking by the building and smelled gas seconds before the big blast.

Diners ran out of their shoes and bystanders helped one another escape, witnesses said. Passers-by were hit by debris and flying glass, and bloodied victims were aided as they sat on sidewalks and lay on the ground.

The explosion was so forceful it blew the door off a cafe across an avenue and left piles of rubble on the sidewalk. One witness said his son helped to lift debris off a man so he could escape the restaurant where they had been eating.

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