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Gas blast destroys 2 New York City apartment buildings; at least 7 people dead

By AP - Mar 13,2014 - Last updated at Mar 13,2014

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 blast Wednesday morning in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighbourhood 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 neighbourhood 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 1½ 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 neighbourhood.

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 neighbouring 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.

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