Within minutes of reports of a building collapse, the emergency response teams shut down several blocks and snarled traffic throughout lower Manhattan.

"I can't go any farther," the taxi driver taking us to the scene told us soon after the blast was first reported on Thursday.

He left us at Astor Place - home of the famous Village Voice newspaper and theatres like Joe's Pub - with more than three blocks to walk and 40 pounds of gear to carry.

Everywhere, people stopped in the street and on the pavements to watch the smoke as it billowed above the buildings.

More than 200 firefighters responded to what was labelled a 'seven-alarm fire.'

The explosion, apparently caused by an illegally tapped gas line, levelled three buildings, killed two people who were found among the rubble, and shook the heart of New York City.

Faisal Jamil had just crossed 2nd Avenue when he heard the boom.

"My immediate reaction was to duck," he said. "And then as I got on my feet again I saw the front of the building collapse, the first two floors - and within a few seconds I saw a flame."

Two bodies were found in the rubble of the collapsed buildings [Al Jazeera, Faisal Jamil]  

Jamil showed me a picture on his iPhone of the building in the moments before it became engulfed in flames.

At first, all you notice is his finger blocking the bottom of the shot, but he zoomed in on a man standing at least two floors up on the fire escape.

Moments after the photo was taken, Jamil said, the man jumped, perhaps because the ladder was about to collapse.

He saw others leaving the scene covered in blood.

Several days on, getting to the scene of the explosion still isn’t easy, with demolition work and traffic jams continuing.

'What kind of attack is it?'

The blast happened in the East Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York, an area long associated with poets and artists, thriving with cafes and shops.

There are a lot of young hipsters and college students there, with a sense of invincibility.

Ever since New York was attacked on September 11, 2001, some people are more inclined to suspect "terrorism" than a leaky gas line when things like this happen.

"You don't expect it - and this is the kind of world we live in right now, all kind of thoughts going through your mind," Jamil said. "What kind of attack is it?"

"It was just surreal," said James Cole, another young man we found wearing gym shorts and a blazer over his bare chest. He was about to take a shower when he heard the explosion next door and evacuated.

"You see it in movies but it’s so much more chilling in real life."

City officials labelled it a gas explosion right away, as soon as Mayor Bill de Blasio showed up at the scene with Police and Fire Commissioners and waded into the pack of reporters who clogged up 6 Street trying to get the latest news.

Just about a year ago a leaky main in East Harlem exploded killing eight people and injuring dozens.

This time they suspect foul play was involved, but the message from city officials was the same: if a New Yorker smells gas the thing to do is call the fire department, not the building owner as seems to have happened in this case.

Minutes can save lives. Even in a city like New York, ageing infrastructure and petty thieves can do major harm to innocent people.

Source: Al Jazeera