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Acrid, Smoky Air Overwhelms Neighbors After East Harlem Explosion

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The scene of the massive explosion in East Harlem Wednesday was a cause for concern as the street filled with dust and smoke.

As CBS 2's Hazel Sanchez reported, residents – especially those with preexisting health conditions – were unsure about air quality and wore masks to walk the streets.

Anthony Betterflicks described the horror of the explosion on Park Avenue off 116th Street, which leveled two five-story buildings and left at least three people dead and more than 70 injured.

"I've been in the military and this felt like the real thing. You know what I mean?" he said. "Like, this felt like I was on the battlefield, like, the explosion was that loud."

And within seconds, Betterflicks said his Harlem neighborhood was overwhelmed with huge, suffocating clouds of smoke. He shot video of the scene with his cellphone.

"We couldn't see, like about 10 or 15 feet away from where we're at now? We couldn't see nothing," he said. "It was just covered in fog and smoke."

Witness Mac Mayor was also wearing a mask as he talked with CBS 2's Sanchez.

"I looked up the building was gone -- smoking coming out, it was piling up, and it was just in the beginning of getting thick," he said.

People living several blocks away felt the explosion, and saw the blinding smoke creeping toward their homes as well.

"I looked out the window. I saw smoke, and I saw people running," said Robert Santiago of East Harlem.

Police and emergency responders strapped on masks to help them breathe, as the haze hovered around them. Officers also handed out masks to local residents who were struggling with the irritating smoke.

"This smoke is crazy," Mayor said.

"I couldn't breathe, it was just so bad. I had to close the windows. Even the smoke up in the air and everything -- just walking over here is so bad," said Theresa Rivera.

"It's terrible; you can't breathe. I'm ready to go upstairs now," added Santiago. "It smells like plastic; like burned rubber."

City officials urged residents with respiratory problems to avoid the East Harlem neighborhood until the air clears.

"A couple of hours ago I just came out here to get a cup of coffee, and I smelled all that smoke," said Yvette McClamb of Harlem. "I'm an asthmatic. I can't be inhaling this. It's really scary, really scary."

City officials said the air quality in the area overall was good, and the rain Wednesday night helped.

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