Victims try to sort out blast, three of the dead identified
For many of the victims who somehow survived the East Harlem blast, the rest of their Wednesday meant nursing wounds and waiting for news on loved ones still missing.
The two buildings went down after what National Transportation Safety Board officials said was a gas explosion -- reduced to smoldering piles of steel and brick. Nearby buildings also were damaged, and injured residents, like those in the two demolished structures, were left homeless.
As firefighters doused the flames and a form of chaos played out on the busy streets of northern Manhattan, officials confirmed the deaths of at least six people in the blast. Dozens were injured, and as of late Wednesday night, nine people were still missing.
Griselde Camacho, 45, Carmen Tanco, 67 and Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios, 21 were confirmed as having died in the incident, with the remaining victims yet to be identified, officials said. Andreas Panagopoulos was among the nine who remained missing late Wednesday.
Two among the dead were popular members of Bethel Gospel Assembly, just four blocks from the blast.
Carmen Tanco, 67, a member of the church for 20 years, was an usher at Sunday services and a "bundle of energy," said Ruth-Ann Wynter, the Harlem church's director of ministry relations.
When Griselde Camacho wasn't looking after students as a sergeant in the public safety office at Hunter College in Manhattan, where she was named by her union as the Peace Officer of the Year in 2010, she was volunteering in the church's video department.
Friends and college officials confirmed her death Wednesday night.
"Her presence will definitely be missed," Wynter said of Camacho, the mother of a teenage son.
In a statement posted Wednesday night on the Hunter College website, president Jennifer J. Raab paid tribute to Camacho.
"Our hearts go out to Griselde's family at this terrible time," Raab said in the statement, displayed next to a photo of a beaming Camacho. "We know this is a difficult time for all those who knew and worked with Sergeant Camacho, whether at the Silberman School or as part of the public safety office."
At nearby hospitals, those lucky enough to get out alive tried to make sense of the explosion and everything they lost.
Luis Rivera, 52, was sleeping in his bed in a neighboring apartment building when the force of the explosion blew out his windows and tossed him out of bed and into the air before he hit the ground. His television and other furniture followed him down. He spent Wednesday at The Mount Sinai Hospital in Harlem with other wounded survivors.
"I was elevated in the air," he said. "And everything came down on top of me . . . I thought it was an earthquake."
Though he's been released, he can't go home -- he and his wife were headed to the American Red Cross Wednesday night to find shelter. "Everything in my house is destroyed," Rivera said.
The explosion claimed victims beyond those inside the Park Avenue buildings. Two FBI agents, who were driving through the area at the time of the explosion, were injured. An FBI official said the agents, who were not identified, were there on an "unrelated" matter and were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
After the blast, tearful reunions of those feared dead but since found took place at hospitals and emergency centers, while others waited anxiously to hear about missing family members possibly trapped in rubble.
There was no sign Wednesday of Andreas Panagopoulos at three hospitals, leaving his family to grapple with the possibility he was still trapped Wednesday night, or worse.
"We don't know anything," said Tulio Gomez, Panagopoulos' brother-in-law, as he waited yesterday afternoon at a makeshift command center a block from the scene.
"We don't know if there are still people inside. I don't think we're going to get any news."
Panagopoulos, 42, last spoke to his wife, Lisbeth Perez, when she called him at 8:30 a.m., about 45 minutes before the explosion. The family said Panagopoulos rarely leaves the apartment during the day.
After the blast, his family rushed to the scene and eventually began their daylong search at local hospitals, where time after time they discovered, "It's not him."
With the Associated Press.