By Eliana Dockterman and Rishi Iyengar
Updated: March 26, 2015 6:30 PM ET

Three buildings in a heavily residential area of New York City collapsed as a fire broke out in a fourth, leaving 19 injured in what is suspected to be a gas-related explosion.

Four of the injured are in a critical condition, a spokesman for the city’s fire department told reporters late Thursday.

The blast took place just after 3 p.m. in the highly residential East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, and about 250 firefighters and EMS workers responded to the scene around 3:20 p.m., local time. Firefighters searched the buildings before the first one collapsed 15 minutes later, forcing them out.

The fourth building “is still involved with some pockets of fire, it’s still an active scene,” he said. “Investigation is still ongoing.”

In a news conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said preliminary reports suggest that plumbing or gas work was being done in a building on Second Avenue before the explosion took place.

The buildings near the corner of Second Avenue and 7th Street contain both residences and businesses, including a sushi restaurant and a popular late-night Belgian fry shop called Pommes Frites.

Ben Mackinnon, 28, heard an explosion while sitting in a cafe across the street from the buildings. He then reportedly saw several men covered in blood emerge from the sushi restaurant, and said one of them fell onto the sidewalk.

“The explosion was big enough that the door of the cafe blew open,” Mackinnon told Reuters.

Other eyewitnesses corroborated his account, with nearby bakery-owner Moishe Perl saying he saw the lower floors of a building starting to crumble after hearing the explosion.

Consolidated Edison is shutting down the gas in the impacted area and has sent a team to investigate the cause of the explosion, according to a Con Ed spokesman. The company’s president said at the news conference that Con Ed workers who had visited the building earlier in the afternoon to inspect work being done by a private company found that work unacceptable and recommended not introducing gas. The explosion happened about an hour later.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management sent out an alert telling people in the area to close their windows and stay away from the smoke. The smell of smoke spread at least as far as midtown Manhattan, a couple miles away.

A spokesperson for the Red Cross said a temporary shelter for displaced residents of the 49 units in the buildings has been set up at an elementary school in the area.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com and Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com.

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