Amid the destruction and chaos in the East Village Thursday afternoon, some residents didn't wait for firefighters to arrive.

They ran to the scene, risking their lives to help people escape a raging fire and collapsing buildings.

Among the scenes: A woman clinging to a mangled second-floor fire escape helped to the ground by another resident. Two men rushing over to free someone trapped in a basement.

Jason Birchard, 48, whose family owns Veselka, a restaurant two blocks away from the scene, said his building shook from the suspected gas explosion at 121 Second Ave., between East Seventh Street and St. Marks Place.

"It sounded like two tractor-trailers hitting head-on," he said. "My first visual was multiple people down in the street."

Many people ran to assist the victims, Birchard said, including one man who climbed a fire escape to bang on windows and alert residents minutes before flames were visible.

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"It felt like an earthquake," said Ann Romotowska, 26, who had just returned to her third-floor apartment with her roommate. "We were in the room and heard a loud boom. We could see the glass all on the ground outside," she said.

They made it safely outside, helping other residents get out. From the street, Romotowska said she saw the rescue of the woman on the fire escape.

Tobarka Hassan, a waiter from a nearby Indian restaurant, looked outside after the explosion and said "everything was falling down. Fire was coming from the basement to the top of the building." He added, "I felt the heat from here, at least half a block away."

A woman who lives nearby could only shake her head at the sight of the devastation. "It's really just horrifying," she said. "This is absolutely horrendous."

With Ivan Pereira,

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Maria Alvarez and Alison Fox