NEW YORK (TheBlaze/AP) -- An apartment building collapsed in a fiery burst of rubble, and flames spread to two nearby buildings, injuring at least a dozen people and scattering debris across surrounding streets in the heart of Manhattan's trendy East Village.
The mayor said preliminary evidence suggested a gas-related explosion was to blame.
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/John Minchillo)
Orange flames billowed from the blaze on a block near New York University and the Washington Square Park area on Thursday as 120 firefighters converged to fight it. Smoke could be seen and smelled for miles.
Firefighters said at least 12 people were hurt, three critically, and other people were being evaluated at the scene. The area was being evacuated, and the city's health department advised residents to keep their windows closed because of the smoke.
Reports of an explosion immediately started circulating on Thursday as witnesses uploaded photos and video of the chaotic scene:
BREAKING: Major fire, explosion, and collapse reported at 7th Street & Second Avenue in East Village in NYC. pic.twitter.com/Otb703lDxL— Peter Wilson (@PetesWire) March 26, 2015
Explosion in East Village, NYC. Fire seems to be growing. pic.twitter.com/cp6G2MDP8m— Michelle Castillo (@MishCastillo) March 26, 2015
Adil Choudhury, who lives a block away, ran outside when he heard "a huge boom."
"Already there was smoke everywhere" when he saw the building, he said. "The flames were coming out from the roof. The fire was coming out of every window."
Items from a ground-floor sushi restaurant were blown into a street, and the explosion was so forceful that it blew the door off a cafe across the avenue. Rubble, glass and debris littered sidewalks.
Crews with utility Con Edison were at the scene and planned to start investigating after firefighters got the blaze under control.
Area resident Paul Schoengold said he was walking about two blocks away when he heard an "incredibly loud" roar.
"Then the fire started. I could see the flames on the roof, and they kept getting higher," shooting perhaps 50 feet into the air, he said.
As freelance photographer Michael Seto ran up to the buildings after hearing the explosion in his apartment a block and a half away, flames were spreading and engulfing one building's first floor.
Meanwhile, a man was climbing up the fire escape, not down, he said.
"People were calling to him that the building's on fire - he needs to get down," and he did, Seto said.
Other witnesses said a woman scrambled down her fire escape in the moments after the explosion. She stopped on the second floor, afraid to go further, and passers-by climbed up to help get her down.
In the aftermath, one person was lying on the ground, being attended to by two to three passers-by who were holding his head still, Seto said. A woman was sitting on the curb with blood coming down her face, and another woman walked past him with blood on her face, he said.
The fire happened little over a year after a gas explosion in a building in East Harlem killed eight people and injured about 50.