NEW YORK -- They were either in bed or just getting ready for the day when their world collapsed in an avalanche of brick and debris.
Three people were killed and eight others injured yesterday morning when part of a deteriorated wall supporting a six-story, 72-unit Harlem apartment building fell with a roaring rumble.
Officials called the deadly collapse a freak accident, but residents complained of long-standing problems in the building. And some said they had noticed a crack in the wall that gave way.
"It appears that we have a deterioration of the east side wall," said New York City Building Commissioner Joel Miele after viewing the devastated building, which resembled a doll house with one side peeled away. "The lime in the bricks may have seeped out over time and weakened the wall."
New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani showed up at the wrecked building in the morning. After looking over the scene, he told reporters, "The city will have an investigation."
The rear wall of the 70-year-old building on 140th Street crashed in a heap at 7:50 a.m. The collapse left exposed rooms slanting down at a 30-degree angle and beds, radiators, clothing and other items leaning precariously on the edge.
Most of the 150 tenants rushed out of the building upon hearing the rumbling. The dead and injured lived in the six apartments of the section that collapsed. About 40 residents were given shelter at a nearby senior citizens home.
Mr. Miele said the building had not been cited for structural problems during twice-a-year inspections since 1989, but he said it had received 278 maintenance violations for such things as a malfunctioning elevator and the lack of heat and hot water.
"This is not a common problem," said Vahe Tiryakian, a spokesman for the New York City Building Department, which oversees the structural safety of buildings.
He said that officials do not inspect buildings for structural damage unless there is a specific complaint.
Two of the dead were found under wreckage that had piled up in an alleyway between the rear of the building and the senior citizens home.
One of the two bodies was not found until 2 p.m., when rescue dogs discovered it under the debris.
The third fatality was a 76-year-old woman who died after being rushed to Harlem Hospital Center.