Emergency responders search through the rubble at the site
of the explosion in Harlem. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The death toll has risen to seven as rescue workers
continue to search through the rubble left when a massive gas
explosion in East Harlem decimated two five-storey apartment
The body of another victim was found on Thursday morning
(local time), a FDNY spokesman said. Five people were still
listed as missing, but that could change as other bodies are
found or people were accounted for, officials said.
The blast at about 9:30am on Wednesday sent chunks of 1644
and 1646 Park Ave. flying into nearby buildings, raining down
on passersby, flattening cars, and hurling into windows of
Debris also landed on the nearby train overpass, shutting
down Metro-North rail service into Grand Central Terminal for
much of the day.
Officials said 27 people had been taken to hospitals,
including two with life-threatening injuries, the mayor's
office and police said. Four hospitals treating victims
reported a higher total, 62, because many were walk-ins.
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Ruben Borrero, 32, who had lived at 1646 Park Ave. with his
family for their entire lives, heard about the collapse from
a friend and returned to see his home in rubble.
"All I saw was an empty lot," he said in an interview at an
American Red Cross shelter at PS 57, on Third Avenue and East
115 Street. "My life was in that building, my father's ashes
and my family dog."
Luckily, Borrero's mother, Sarah, was at work, and his sister
Kimberly, 16, was at school during the collapse. Borrero, who
lived on the second floor, had left in the morning to drop
his son off with the baby-sitter. "We lost everything. All we
have is what we have on our backs," he said.
The intense blast was felt blocks away, and several witnesses
said they thought it was an earthquake.
Candy Vasquez, who lives across the street from the
explosion, said she, her daughter and granddaughter huddled
in the hallway of their building after they heard the
"I feel like I'm living in a war zone," Vasquez said.
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One victim was identified by Hunter College in Manhattan as
Griselde Camacho, 45, a sergeant in the college's public
safety office since 2008. Officials from Bethel Gospel
Assembly, a 97-year-old church four blocks from the blast
site, late Wednesday identified two of the deceased as
members Carmen Tanco, 67, and Camacho.
The two women lived in apartments at 1646 Park Ave., Ruth-Ann
Wynter, Bethel's director of ministry relations, said.
An NYPD spokeswoman, Det. Annette Markowski, confirmed those
identities Thursday morning as well that of another victim,
Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios, 22, also a building resident.
In a telephone briefing with reporters Wednesday, Ed
Foppiano, senior vice president for gas operations at Con
Edison, said that while the utility can't definitively say
what caused the blast, it was treating it as having been
started by a gas leak.
A National Transportation Safety Board team, which arrived
Wednesday evening at the scene to examine what led to the gas
explosion, will be looking at Con Edison's response and any
third-party damage by digging.
"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.
The explosion was reported at 9:31 a.m., shortly after Con
Edison said it received a report of gas fumes in the area at
9:13 a.m. from a resident at 1652 Park Ave. A crew was
dispatched two minutes later but arrived just after the
explosion, the utility said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, handling the first major disaster of
his term, said the blast was caused by an apparent gas leak.
In a news conference, he said, "This is a tragedy of the
worst kind because there was no indication in time to save
people. From what we know now, the only indication of danger
came about 15 minutes earlier when a gas leak was reported to
More than 250 firefighters struggled to put out the gas-fed
blaze, and it wasn't until 1:44 p.m. that Con Edison was able
to shut off gas lines to the buildings.
Specialized search equipment, including bulldozers, were at
the scene early on, the mayor said, but the raging fire
thwarted more intensive efforts to find the missing.
By the time darkness fell, rescuers were searching debris
piles. But some areas of the blast site were inaccessible
because of a sinkhole that formed in front of the buildings
due to an underground water main break, the mayor's office
said. That kept heavy equipment from clearing rubble until
the area was stabilized, city officials said.
The injured were being treated at The Mount Sinai Hospital,
Metropolitan Hospital Center, Harlem Hospital Center and
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
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Several relatives of the missing and those left without homes
took shelter and waited for news at PS 57.
Josh Lockwood, chief executive of the American Red Cross
Greater New York region, said his group was helping about 100
people at the school. One woman "came to us saying ‘I don't
know where any of my neighbors are' ... tears streaming down
her face," Lockwood said. "Some are trying to find loved
ones; some have lost loved ones."
One of the missing was apartment resident Andreas
Panagopoulos, 42. His family said they were dreading that he
could be buried under smoldering rubble.
Foppiano said that among the possibilities to be examined are
whether there was a leak or rupture in Con Ed's low-pressure
gas main under Park Avenue or its connection to the destroyed
buildings. He said a Con Ed monitoring truck passed through
the area Feb. 28 to test for gas leaks on the block and found
Foppiano said that gas can migrate and pool in a subterranean
cavity or go into a structure. Typically, gas levels that
reach a level of 5 percent to 15 percent of the atmosphere in
an area will explode if there is an ignition source.
A check of Con Ed records showed what the utility executive
called was "very little activity" about gas leaks on the
block of the blast.
But some residents Wednesday recalled smelling gas earlier
this week. "You didn't want to walk into the building because
you felt nauseous," said Borrero, who said he was told by 311
to "file a complaint."