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Death toll in NYC gas explosion climbs to 8

More Victims Found in East Harlem Explosion

NEW YORK (AP) - Rescue workers using dogs and thermal-detection gear to search rubble for more victims of a gas explosion found an eighth body on Thursday while investigators tried to pinpoint the leak and determine whether it had anything to do with the city's aging gas and water mains, some from the 1800s.

At least five people were unaccounted for after the deafening blast Wednesday morning destroyed two five-story East Harlem apartment buildings that were served by an 1887 cast-iron gas main. More than 60 people were injured.

Fire and utility officials said that if the buildings were plagued in recent days or weeks by strong gas odors, as some tenants claimed, they have no evidence anyone reported it before Wednesday.

National Transportation Safety Board team member Robert Sumwalt said the gas main and distribution pipe under the street had been examined in a crater and were found to be intact, with no obvious punctures or ruptures. They had not been torn from the ground, he said.

However, he said NTSB investigators had been unable to conduct a fuller examination because of the rescue effort underway, and it was unclear whether the leak came from inside or outside the buildings.

He said there had also been a water main break at the site, but it was unknown if that contributed to the gas explosion or was caused by it. The water main was installed in 1897, according to the city.

Authorities also hoped to reach the basement - still under rubble - to examine heating units, meters and other equipment that might hold clues to the blast, fire department Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said: "We can only get conclusive evidence when the fire is out, when the rescue is completed, and we really get a chance to look at all the facts."

Aging infrastructure - crumbling bridges, highways, water mains and gas lines - has become a major concern in recent years, especially in older cities in the Northeast, and has been blamed for explosions, floods and other accidents.

"We know this is a fundamental challenge for New York City and any older city," de Blasio said. But he said the federal government needs to provide more aid to cities to deal with the problem.

As cold, stiff winds blew across the still-smoldering debris, construction equipment with iron jaws picked up the rubble, first depositing it on the pavement, then hoisting it onto trucks that hauled it away. Clouds of thick smoke swirled over Park Avenue.

Officials said workers were about 40 percent to 50 percent through the rubble, using sound devices and putting telescopic video cameras into small voids to see if there is someone in there.

The mayor told firefighters carrying grappling hooks and other equipment: "I can only imagine, knowing that at any moment you might find a body, how difficult that is."

Police identified six of the dead: Griselde Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who took part in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician; Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the buildings that collapsed; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker.

Mexican officials said a Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.

The body of unidentified eighth person was pulled from the rubble on Thursday.

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.

The blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. The Con Edison utility said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they got there too late.

Con Ed CEO John McAvoy said the call had been correctly categorized as low priority. "A single person calling that they smelled gas outside of a building is not something that would warrant a fire department response," he said.

After the disaster, a number of neighborhood residents said they smelled gas on Tuesday but didn't report it. A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said that residents had complained to the landlord about the gas odors on Tuesday and that fire officials were also called a few weeks ago.

But Cassano and McAvoy said that before Wednesday, the fire department and Con Ed had received no complaints in the last 30 days about a gas leak in the area.

An Associated Press analysis of the city's 311 calls database from Jan. 1, 2013, through Tuesday also found no calls from the buildings about gas.

The lesson, De Blasio said, is that because of the city's old and vulnerable infrastructure, people should heed the post-Sept. 11, 2001, slogan, "If you see something, say something."

Sumwalt said the NTSB would be checking calls to the city's 911 emergency line and 311 information line and interviewing witnesses, first responders, the injured and those who smelled gas.

The working-class neighborhood around the site at Park Avenue and 116th Street was once known as Spanish Harlem because of its large population of Puerto Ricans but now has many Asians and other ethnic groups. The neighborhood is gentrifying but still has a high crime rate, fueled by drugs and gangs.

Storefronts range from fast-food shops to botanicas selling folk medicine and religious items.

More than 30,000 miles of decades-old, decaying cast-iron pipe are still being used to deliver gas nationwide, according to the U.S. Transportation Department estimates. In 2011, the American Gas Association said replacement or repair could cost $82 billion.

New York City still uses about 3,000 miles of old cast iron, Boston about 2,000 miles, Philadelphia about 1,500 and Washington 400, the department said. Experts said much of the pipe dates to before World War II, and some of it may even be more than 100 years old.

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job60 March 14 2014 at 9:04 AM

hope and change people.........I will start by putting america back to work fixing the infrastruture......

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2 replies
no1gum job60 March 14 2014 at 9:51 AM

It could have happened, but we have a Congress more interested in the 1 %

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tnana23boys job60 March 14 2014 at 10:44 AM

Thousands of jobs repairing and rebuilding infrastructure are just waiting for the GOP controlled House to finally do what they ran on in 10 and 12.....JOBS JOBS JOBS...........I hope you see why change isn't happening and stop blaming it on the president.

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kirwin3536 March 14 2014 at 11:37 AM

Of course the city and the gas company are going to deny there were any complaints about the gas smell weeks before this happened. Their going to cover their own asses from lawsuits.Pretty sad that a city as big as this still has pipes in the ground that are over 125 years old.Wonder how many more people will die before they get off the $$$ to replace their antique systems?

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dexrmerritt March 14 2014 at 9:23 AM

AS JJ it was just an accident now nurture and counsel

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bryanmerrittper2 March 14 2014 at 11:39 AM

If they smelled gas why didn't they move everyone out until they could find and fix the leak. when ever you smell gas you call the gas company to shut off the gas line and air the place out before you do anything else. These deaths could have been prevented.

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mocha008 March 14 2014 at 10:54 AM

Some of you people are real morons. You're nothing but cowards hiding behind your computer screens. It's so disgusting how the internet had made it so easy for people to just sign on and say anything, no matter how idiotic and insensitive. It's all good though, God will judge you for your stupidity.

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vulturesmotto March 14 2014 at 3:13 PM

So, we refuse to allow drilling in New York which will bring in the revenue to fix the ancient infrastructure, Obama (literally) refuses to allow oil permits which would bring in tens of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue on top of dropping gasoline prices from the $4 a gallon price, Obama spent about 10 trillion to prop the unions and wall street, and people thing by voting in the same people something will change??? Why do we idolize these people?? Didn't we gain independence from England to not have to be under the rule of one tyrant 3000 miles away - now we have 3000 tyrants 1 mile away...... ??? They did call the gas company when someone smelled gas, but it was a water line broke which severed the gas line and there was no time even to evacuate.. Sad that this happened. What ever happened tot he "Shovel Ready" jobs, fixing our infrastructure, or any of the other promises like keeping our doctor or bending the cost curve down?? Keep voting for Democrat Establishment and Republican Establishment and we will only get more of the same stuff....

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Carol March 14 2014 at 8:12 AM

People being interviewed yesterday stated they had smelled gas the night before. Why did no one think to call the gas company then?

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3 replies
joe March 14 2014 at 8:04 AM

Our infrastructure is getting too old so lets try and bale out someone else before we fix our problems in this country. Gobble Gobble

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Steve-a-rino March 14 2014 at 7:32 AM

Here's a screamer for you: Every "system," be it gas, electric, oil or propane, has a recommended maintenance schedule designed to keep things like this from happening. Every machine designed for commercial use (down to and including toasters, ice makers and freezers) are supposed to have regularly scheduled maintenance - and it's almost never done. Every man-made system, appliance or product is doomed to fail eventually and that's why maintenance is required. Too bad we don't bother following the manufacturer's instructions!

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cpruitt221 March 14 2014 at 6:47 AM

The gas lines in the Northeast are some of the oldest in the U.S. and there are probably many in most cities and towns that need to be replaced. Regardless of where you live, there should be some rules that are followed to inspect and replace them. I wonder if any studies have been done about the probability of them needing repair after 100 or more years, etc.

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