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Searchers scour rubble after gas explosion kills 7

By Jonathan Lemire

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 13 2014 9:47 p.m. MDT

An excavator removes debris from the site of a building explosion, Thursday, March 13, 2014 in New York. 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 explosion Wednesday morning in Manhattan's East Harlem injured more than 60 people.

Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK — Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled four additional bodies overnight from the rubble of two Manhattan apartment buildings, as the death toll rose Thursday 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 explosion Wednesday morning in East Harlem 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.

"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 remained at the site.

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.

New York police identified another victim as Rosaura Hernandez Barrios, 21.

The bodies of three unidentified people also were found. A man was 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. The seventh victim, recovered around 7:15 a.m., was an adult male, police 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.

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