Three confirmed dead in NY blast

Three people have been confirmed dead after an explosion in East Harlem levelled two buildings, and the search continues for nine occupants who are unaccounted for, city officials say.

Word of an additional death came shortly after the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators will focus on Con Edison's response to the gas leak that caused the blast.

"We want to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened ... to make sure something like this never happens again," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt, shortly after a team of investigators arrived at the scene on Wednesday evening (local time).

Those investigators will look at any possible issues with the distribution pipeline that delivers natural gas to the five-story buildings and how Con Edison handled the situation, Sumwalt said.

"We will be looking at Con Edison ... their integrity management system, seeing how they handled complaints ... oversight of Con Edison by federal and state officials," Sumwalt said.

Investigators will look at Con Edison's call log and at any evidence of third-party damage by digging, he said.

Con Edison said the utility is "going to be cooperating with all agencies."

The explosion injured dozens, hurling debris onto the elevated Metro-North tracks along Park Avenue, shattering windows in the neighborhood and sending people running into the streets as a plume of smoke rose above the skyline.

Con Edison workers were on their way to address the leak, but "the explosion occurred before that team could arrive," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

"This is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people," the mayor said. "From what we know now, the only indication of danger came about 15 minutes earlier, when a gas leak was reported to Con Edison."

Among the victims, two have what are considered critical/serious, life-threatening injuries; five have serious, but not life-threatening, injuries; and 20 have minor injuries, the FDNY said.

The FDNY said its count reflected the number of victims the department treated. City hospitals, meanwhile, reported treating 61 patients, some of whom were walk-ins. Most had minor injuries. Two FBI agents were among the injured, although those injuries were not life-threatening, according to the FBI.

About 250 members of the FDNY were conducting a "thorough search" of the rubble, de Blasio said, adding that he expected it to be "a long operation." Those attempting to reach family or loved ones among the nine missing are urged to call 311, the mayor's office said.

Michael Parrella, a FDNY spokesman, said the bulk of the fire that destroyed the buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. had been extinguished by Wednesday evening and firefighters were tackling hot spots among the debris. Parrella said firefighters also were simultaneously searching the debris.

Some parts of the debris pile were not accessible "due to a sinkhole that has developed in front of the buildings due to a subsurface water main break, likely closed by the explosion," Parrella said.

Among those missing were Andreas Panagopoulos. There has been no sign of Panagopoulos at three hospitals, leaving his family with the dreadful feeling that he might be buried in the rubble.

"We don't know anything," Tulio Gomez, his brother-in-law, said as he waited Wednesday afternoon at a makeshift command center a block from the scene.

Panagopoulos, 42, last spoke to his wife, Lisbeth Perez, when she called him at 8:30 a.m., about 45 minutes before the explosion.

"They talked in the morning, and he went back to sleep," said Gomez, 43, of Queens.

He said his brother-in-law runs his advertising company from home, a second-floor apartment at 1646 Park Ave.

"He usually doesn't leave," Gomez said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it "has launched a go-team" to investigate the explosion.

A report of a gas odor from a resident at 1652 Park Ave. came at 9:13 a.m., Con Edison said in a tweet. Con Edison crews were dispatched at 9:15 a.m. "and arrived just after explosion," the utility said in the tweet.

The first call reporting the explosion to 911 was at 9:31 a.m. and the first firefighting unit was on the scene at 9:33 a.m., said FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano.

Officials said there were six residential units in one building and nine in the other that were destroyed by the explosion.

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