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Did Building Code Violations Cause the NYC Gas Explosion?

The massive explosion in Manhattan's East Village last week left at least 50 people injured and two unaccounted for, according to news reports. In addition to its serious impact on the lives of the injured, the explosion also illustrates the complexity of the aging infrastructure of New York City and the challenge of identifying building code violations. .

Intense media speculation about the cause of the explosion and subsequent fire reveals how difficult it is to determine the precise cause of an event such as this one, which levelled three buildings and left two missing.

City officials say it was a gas leak, but what caused the gas leak? Some reports say that illegal tapping into gas lines might have been the cause. Last summer, power to one of the buildings was shut off because gas was leaking into a restaurant, apparently because the lines to the restaurant had been illegally tapped into by residents on the upper floors. Although repairs were made, tenants reported that their gas had not been turned off, leading to speculation that the landlord simply tapped into another building.

In addition to illegally tapping into gas lines, the explosion might have resulted from faulty construction techniques. Investigators are looking into whether a construction firm hired to make renovations in the buildings may have carelessly ruptured a gas line. The construction firm's owner was the source of controversy last month when he was one of 50 people arrested in an extensive bribery scheme that involved "fixing" building violations. The owner of the firm was also injured in the blast.

Finally, gas inspectors were at the building just an hour before the blast, inspecting a meter that they said did not meet the criteria for new gas service. Did they fail to identify hazards associated with the meter they inspected? The city's Department of Buildings, the fire department and several other agencies are investigating the blast.

Coincidentally, the explosion came just one year after an explosion caused by a gas leak levelled two buildings and killed eight people in East Harlem. The leaking pipe turned out to be 127 years old. In the wake of the East Harlem blast, New Yorkers were instructed to call the fire department if they smelled gas rather than Con Ed, the city's gas utility. After that change, gas leak calls to FDNY increased by 68 percent.

It will be weeks or months before liability in last week's tragedy is established - if it ever is. But determining fault for past events does not protect New Yorkers going forward. Individuals must report the smell of gas at the first opportunity to prevent tragedies like these from happening.