NY explosion death toll rises

Emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of the explosion in Harlem. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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 buildings.

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 nearby buildings.

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 rumbling.

"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 Con Edison."

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 none.

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."

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