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Searchers scour rubble after gas explosion kills 6

Death Toll Rises: At Least 6 Dead, 3 Missing In Building Explosion

NEW YORK (AP) - Under the bright glare of generator-powered floodlights, rescue workers using back hoes and a bulldozer tried to clear through mountains of broken bricks and splintered wood early Thursday as they searched for any additional victims still buried from an explosion that demolished two Manhattan apartment buildings and killed at least 6 people. Meanwhile, questions swirled about the gas leak that triggered the blast and whether complaints about gas odors had been ignored.

The explosion Wednesday morning injured more than 60 people, with searchers still trying to locate others a day later. At the site on Park Avenue and 116th Street, thermal imaging cameras were being used to identify heat spots - bodies or pockets of fire. Three victims were found between midnight Wednesday and early Thursday.

"This is a difficult job, a challenging job," Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said. He said it was "a very terrible and traumatic scene."

Searches of the street were completed Wednesday evening and no victims had been found there, city officials said. Workers initially were hampered from fully accessing the building space because of a sinkhole caused by a subsurface water main break. The weather also posed a challenge, with temperatures dropping into the 20s and rain falling, but workers planned to be at the site through Thursday.

The fiery blast erupted at about 9:30 a.m., around 15 minutes after a neighboring resident reported smelling gas, authorities said. The Con Edison utility said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they didn't arrive until it was too late.

The explosion shattered windows a block away, rained debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks close by, cast a plume of smoke over the skyline and sent people running into the streets.

"It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building," said Waldemar Infante, a porter who was working in a basement nearby. "There were glass shards everywhere on the ground, and all the stores had their windows blown out."

Hunter College identified one victim as Griselde Camacho, a security officer who worked at the Silberman School of Social Work building. Hunter, in a statement on its website, said Comacho, 45, had worked for the college since 2008.

Also killed was Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist. Her cousin News 12 cameraman Angel Vargas said the family started a frantic search when she didn't show up for work Wednesday.

Police identified another victim as Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios, 21.

The bodies of three unidentified people also were found: a man pulled from the rubble just after midnight Wednesday; a woman found at about 2:50 a.m. Thursday; and a man discovered about a half-hour later.

Just after the explosion, nine residents were said to be missing, but as the number of dead increased, the number of unaccounted for occupants dropped.

At least three of the injured were children; one, a 15-year-old boy, was reported in critical condition with burns, broken bones and internal injuries. Most of the other victims' injuries were minor and included cuts and scrapes.

A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said residents had complained to the landlord about smelling gas as recently as Tuesday.

A few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odor, which he said was so bad that a tenant on the top floor broke open the door to the roof for ventilation.

"It was unbearable," said Borrero, who lived in a second-floor apartment with his mother and sister, who were away at the time of the explosion. "You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out."

The fire department said a check of its records found no instances in the past month in which tenants of the two buildings reported gas odors or leaks.

Jennifer Salas lived in one of the buildings. She told The New York Times her husband, Jordy Salas, and her dog were in the building at the time of the collapse and were missing.

"There's six floors in the building; each floor has one apartment," she said. "Last night it smelled like gas, but then the smell vanished and we all went to sleep."

Edward Foppiano, a Con Ed senior vice president, said there was only one gas odor complaint on record with the utility from either address, and it was last May, at the building next door to Borrero's. It was a small leak in customer piping and was fixed, he said.

The block was last checked on Feb. 28 as part of a regular leak survey, and no problems were detected, Foppiano said.

One of the side-by-side buildings had a piano store on the first floor, the other a storefront church.

City records show that the building Borrero lived in was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu, proprietor of the piano business. A phone number listed for Muramatsu rang unanswered.

Records at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development indicate the agency responded to complaints from a tenant and cited Muramatsu in January for a broken outlet, broken plaster, bars over a fire escape, a missing window guard and missing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

City building records don't show any work in progress at either address, but the building owned by the Spanish Christian Church had obtained permits and installed 120 feet of gas pipe last June.

Con Ed said it remains to be seen whether the leak was in a company main or in customer-installed inside plumbing. The gas main that serves the area was made of plastic and cast iron, and the iron dated to 1887, Foppiano said.

"Age is not in and of itself an issue with cast iron," he said, noting that Con Edison has a cast iron replacement program and the pipe was not slated to be removed in the next three-year period.

A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived in the evening to investigate. The agency investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters.

NTSB team member Robert Sumwalt said investigators would be looking at how Con Edison handles reports of gas odors and issues with the pipe and would be constructing a timeline of events.

Just before the explosion, a resident from a building next to the two that were destroyed reported smelling gas inside his apartment and thought the odor might be coming from outside, Con Ed spokesman Bob McGee said.

The tragedy brought the neighborhood to a standstill as police set up barricades to keep residents away. Thick, acrid smoke made people's eyes water. Some people wore surgical masks, while others held their hands or scarves over their faces. Witnesses said the blast was so powerful it knocked groceries off store shelves.

Wednesday night, the American Red Cross served meals to more than 130 people living in seven buildings impacted by the blast. The Salvation Army provided accommodations in one of its shelters.

The explosion destroyed everything Borrero's family owned, including the ashes of his father, who died a few years ago. Borrero said he assumes his 5-year-old terrier, Nina, was killed.

But "I have my mother and sister," he said. "I'm happy for that."

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nad22551 March 13 2014 at 7:28 AM

why didn't the people who smelled gas on Tuesday call it in? This whole thing could have been averted.

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1 reply
fox12ga nad22551 March 13 2014 at 7:54 AM

They did but I think some one got their palm greased to look the other way

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2 replies
nad22551 fox12ga March 13 2014 at 8:21 AM

no they didn't-my son works for Con Ed-no one called to report it till 15 minutes before the explosion, even though they smelled it days before

Flag +4 rate up
Michael fox12ga March 13 2014 at 9:03 AM

To Nad. If they smelled it for days as you suggest, why did it take days to explode? Does anyone smoke in that building. Were there no sparks or flames anywhere in the building for days that should have ignited the strong leaking gas? Something is just not right here. I don't think it was leaking very long! Could it be sabotage? Just asking. God bless the dead, wounded, and their families.

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jorgannec March 13 2014 at 9:39 AM

One of the tragic attitudes in the US is that paying a fine for a problem fixes the problem and is a lot cheaper. Another tragic situation is the lack of follow up once a fine for repairs has been given and paid there is no follow up to see if the repairs HAVE ACTUALLY BEEN MADE.

We need to stand up and have our lives and rights protected.

My thoughts and condolences go to all the people affected in this tragic situation.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Patricia March 13 2014 at 9:48 AM

You I can only echo what most people are saying. May all prayers go out to the familys and. God bless the the first responders.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
cshae89546 March 13 2014 at 9:49 AM

Got to wonder if having city officials pay actually pay attention to how the government functions and the quality of the services they are providing to the tax payers might prevent things like this from happening.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
eecenod March 13 2014 at 10:11 AM

"A few weeks ago someone reported smelling gas to the fire dept." The fire dept records reflects no complaints within the past month? ANYONE GOING TO INVESTIGATE THAT?

Flag Reply +8 rate up
Taxi Talk March 13 2014 at 1:31 PM

What a horror story !! Those poor people !! I live here in NYC & know the area quite well !! They should check out ALL circumstances ... Wow ....

Flag Reply +1 rate up
MP3Painting March 13 2014 at 10:32 AM

this is sad because of the people that have died and missing and now so many people with out a home. But I just heard on the news that some people was smelling a strong gas ordor the the before the explosion WHY????????????? did they not call the fire dept. and gas company then?

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JIMMY March 13 2014 at 10:40 AM

Gas are order less and that the reason scent smell was added to them to alert you of leaking. Have your gas pipe check every time u have your gas furnace check, even if u don't use furnace. Those of you uses L p gas and have a gas tank, do not let it go below 20 percent of gas. Have someone to show u and let them help u smell a little gas, so u will know the minute u smell it, u will know what to do. There a history about gas exploded in Bremen, Ga. The whole town shattered because of it. Just because inspections pass the test, doesn't make it safe later. Get them check under and above

Flag Reply +8 rate up
mmlowe March 13 2014 at 11:30 AM

Our Society ? People reported smelling gas, A gas check revealed nothing, not known if coming from company or client source, Building next door smell of gas, smell of gas last month, Unbearable smell, smell so strong...busted through door..., all the post-disaster postering is so bad, and unfortunate our infrastructures are aging, no one wants to bear the cost to fix, we get unnecessary death and destruction, and then explanations how all the signs were NOT really signs at all?

Flag Reply +3 rate up
David S. March 13 2014 at 1:14 PM

I also found this story under the "crime" section. What crime? It was a tragic accident.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
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