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CBS2 Exclusive: Man Steps In To Rescue Woman On Fire Escape In East Village Blast

UPDATED 03/27/15 12:21 a.m.

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Witnesses rushed to the aid of their neighbors during the the devastating explosion and fire in the East Village Thursday afternoon, and some said they were lucky to be alive.

As CBS2's Tracee Carrasco reported exclusively, one man, Austin Branda, rescued a woman from the building at 121 Second Ave. before it erupted in flames along with its neighbor to the north and collapsed.

Photos from the scene showed the woman escaping the building, lowering herself into Branda's arms just seconds after the explosion – and just before the flames began roaring.

Branda watched as the woman struggled with the ladders of the fire escape, and froze in fear.

"I noticed a lady up on the fire escape, and everybody was telling her to try and release the cage coming down, and she didn't know how to do it," Branda said.

Branda was in his apartment across the street and was knocked off his seat by the explosion. He quickly ran downstairs, when he noticed the woman in danger and helped her get out alive.

"I jumped on a chair that was next to the building, and I tried to help from there, and she finally released the thing," he said.

Terrified with only her cell phone and wallet, the woman lowered herself from the building into Branda's arms.

"I'm a little skinny and wiggly. These guys were big guys and they would have caught her. But she was just too scared to jump," Branda said. "She wasn't bleeding. She appeared to be shocked -- very shocked."

Afterward, witnesses said another man ran back up the fire escape to check for anyone still left in the building.

As the fire began to grow, witnesses could be heard shouting to get out and move away from the building. Finally, the sirens of the Fire Department were heard as they arrived on scene, about three minutes after the explosion.

One man was walking right past the buildings on Second Avenue at 7th Street right when the explosion happened.

"I was basically walking down from the Lower East Side, and I made the last-minute decision to go to Fresco, and I saw this happen. I saw a huge explosion," he told 1010 WINS' Gary Baumgarten. "The complete structure of the middle building collapsed, and the glass was all over, so I just basically ducked and I started running."

Man Describes Escaping East Village Explosion

He said he felt fortunate to be alive after the close call.

Meanwhile, a woman told Baumgarten she was shopping in a store when all of a sudden, burning debris started falling.

"Some debris was falling and my shirt caught fire, and I just got that thing off as soon as I could," she said.

Friends had to come with a shirt for the woman, but she said she was fine and did not need any treatment, and she calmly walked away to be sure she was not in the way of any rescue workers.

Woman Says Shirt Caught Fire In East Village Explosion

The explosion was reported at around 3:17 p.m. Nineteen people were injured, and four were reported in critical condition, officials said.

The explosion and resulting fire tore through 119, 121, 123 and 125 Second Ave., which are mixed residential and commercial buildings, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. The buildings at 121 and 123 both pancake collapsed, de Blasio said. The building at 119 Second Avenue was also in danger of collapsing and was cleared away late Thursday.

The bright orange flames quickly shot up through the 121 building as crews got to work. Moments later, it was fully engulfed. Cellphone video showed a thick black plume of smoke and massive flames as the fire spread.

The flames were clearly visible from several blocks away.

"You just saw nothing but smoke coming towards us," said resident Gabriella Maresca. "It was just really thick, and it was huge. I've never seen anything like that."

A woman named Yolanda was just a few doors down and the first thing she saw was people running for their lives.

"The debris was on the corner, the whole thing blew. If anyone was in there, my lord have mercy," she told WCBS 880's Alex Silverman.

12 Injured After Apparent Gas Explosion, Collapse At East Village Buildings

As the fire jumped from one building to the next, the first building began to collapse. Bystanders could only watch in disbelief.

"It was like that you see on TV with explosions, and the surreal of the people walking around in shock," one witness said.

"It rattled me to my nerves," another man said. "I tried to keep my composure."

PHOTOS: Second Avenue Building Explosion

Pete Manchini, who lives in the 121 Second Ave. building, told CBS2's Matt Kozar that the five-story walk-up building has four apartments. He lives in one unit with roommates and said the building had been renovated just this past summer.

"We were the first people to live in it. We've only been living in it since August. It's pretty unfortunate," he said.

He said he had contacted his roommates, who were not home at the time, and his landlord.

"You never really think that it's going to be your building," Manchini said. "I started getting a flood of text messages then I realized that it was mine."

Meanwhile, an NYU student named Miles told CBS2's Kozar he was several blocks away on campus near Washington Square Park when he heard the explosion.

"I was actually meeting with a professor, and people were noticing that it was burning; as though a microwave was going off or something, but it turns out, you know, we looked through the window. We were smelling it," Miles said. "We could see the smoke in the distance, and I came down here just to see what was going on."

NYU spokesman John Beckman told WCBS 880 the university has a dormitory nearby, as well as a dance studio building around the corner and another arts building not too far away. All were evacuated safely, Beckman said.

Numerous residents also took to Twitter at the time of the explosion, and for hours afterward.

A reception station was set up by the American Red Cross of Greater New York at P.S. 63, 121 E. 3rd St., to support residents of the building, neighbors and family members, de Blasio said. The Red Cross said a total of 49 residential units were affected by the explosion, CBS2's Weijia Jiang reported.


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