"I don't want to see it, but I can't leave," said Ken Diamondstone, a resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood, as he stood behind police barricades. "We all know what's going to happen."
After hours of painstaking digging by hand, firefighters made their first grisly discovery: an unidentified body, buried beneath four feet of rubble. Two sneaker-clad legs were spotted in what was left of a brownstone.
Authorities said the collapse of two buildings on the residential block were possibly tied to a gas leak, although KeySpan Energy said it was too early to determine a cause.
Missing were an elderly couple who were fixtures in the neighborhood for 30 years, and the co-owner of the building next door. The three had apparently gone inside after smelling gas, authorities said.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani identified the missing people as Khay Cochran and a married couple, Leonard and Harriet Walit, who apparently had just returned home from a trip on the Connecticut River.
"They were good neighbors, and good people," said Jack Lucas, head of the block association, which had been planning its party for Saturday.
As the hunt for the victims dragged on, small personal mementos appeared amid the shattered bricks and concrete: a white cardigan sweater, a patterned tie.
"This is a horrible thing to look at," Giuliani said at the scene. "It's a gruesome, horrible picture. ... All of this is very gruesome and very difficult."
He said the search effort would likely continue into the night.
On Tuesday night, the building at 420 State St. had collapsed, taking much of the adjacent three-story building down with it. A pile of brick and wood about 1-1/2 stories high was all that remained.
Search dogs turned up human scents, but any optimism disappeared as the hours dragged on and on.
Two tenants of 418 State St. escaped serious injury when they fled the collapsing building. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries.
Witness Kenneth Dinham, who works at a residential drug treatment facility across the street, heard an explosion "like a bomb went off."
"I came outside, all I could see was smoke in the air," Dinham said. "The windows moved, the place shook."
Six buildings were evacuated; the city relocated 20 families.
Evacuee Mamadou Ba, 25, was in his apartment at 414 State St., two doors away. "There was a big boom, and all the building shook," he said.
He spent the night in the street.