NEW YORK (AP) – Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled four additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two New York City apartment buildings, raising the death toll to at least seven from a gas leak-triggered explosion that reduced the area to a pile of smashed bricks, splinters and mangled metal.
The blast Wednesday morning in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood injured more than 60 people, with searchers still trying to locate others a day later. Crews used generator-powered floodlights and thermal imaging cameras to identify heat spots – bodies or pockets of fire – at the site on Park Avenue and 116th Street. Police guarding the scene wore surgical masks and neighborhood residents covered faces with scarfs amid the thick, acrid air.
Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said it was “a very terrible and traumatic scene.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio told firefighters at the scene Thursday morning, “I can only imagine knowing that at any moment you might find a body, how difficult that is.”
Edward Kilduff, the Fire Department’s chief of department, said the amount of debris had been reduced to about 1? floors by Thursday morning.
Firefighters were perched on surrounding rooftops Thursday morning, dousing the still-smoldering debris from above, drawing huge clouds of thick smoke that swirled over Park Avenue and wafted through the neighborhood.
Construction equipment with iron jaws picked up the smoldering debris, first depositing it on the pavement, then hoisting it onto trucks that hauled it away. The debris was a wrecked collection of what were once apartment buildings, from structural beams and wood to pieces of windows and residents’ belongings.
The weather also posed a challenge, with temperatures dropping well below freezing and rain falling, but workers remained at the site.
The fiery blast erupted just 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.
Hunter College identified one victim as Griselde Camacho, a 45-year-old security officer who worked for the university 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.
Officials in Mexico said two of the victims came from the central Mexican state of Puebla. The state’s government identified them as Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, and Rosaura Hernandez Barrios, 22. The government did not say whether the women were related.
New York police had put Hernandez Barrios’ age at 21.The bodies of three unidentified men also were pulled from the rubble, authorities said.
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 that her husband, Jordy Salas, and their dog were in the building at the time of the collapse and were missing.
Salas’ family continued to hold out hope Thursday that he’d be found alive.
His father-in-law, Jorge Ortega, told The Associated Press that the 21-year-old was last seen Wednesday morning when he returned from his night job at a restaurant.
Ortega said his distraught daughter, who is six months pregnant and whom he identified as Jennifer Mendoza, went to the hospital Wednesday but was resting at his home on Thursday.
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.
City records show that the building Borrero lived in was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu. 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.
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.
On 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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