Excavation at East Harlem blast site continues; Saturday's work could yield new clues

Crushed cars on March 15, 2014, under the

Crushed cars on March 15, 2014, under the Metro-North train tracks on Park Avenue in East Harlem near the site of explosion. (Credit: Anthony Lanzilote)

Investigators are expected Sunday to get their first look at pipes suspected of fueling the East Harlem gas explosion last week that destroyed two apartment buildings and killed at least eight people.

Excavation crews have been working almost nonstop since Wednesday's thunderous blast to clear a mountain of debris and search for any survivors, none of whom have been found.

Once the rubble is cleared -- expected late last night or early Sunday-- investigators will enter what remains of the basements, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said yesterday afternoon.


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"The real investigation of getting to the meters and piping and the first floor and basement of the building is going to take place," Cassano said.

Also Sunday, officials with the National Transportation Safety Board, whose jurisdiction covers the explosion because it involves the transportation of natural gas, plan to pressure-test pipes in hopes of pinpointing the source of the leak and restoring service to nearby buildings.

Seven of the eight people killed in the explosion at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. have been publicly identified.

City officials were working with the Japanese consulate to notify the family of a Japanese tourist who was also killed, an NYPD spokesman said. The woman was apparently visiting a piano shop on the ground floor of one of the buildings at the time of the 9:30 a.m. explosion.

Officials say all of the missing have been accounted for, but crews have been working the debris pile gingerly in case a survivor remains trapped.

"We are still looking through a couple of areas in the back in case somebody was there," Cassano said.

Phil Walzak, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the 110 people displaced by the blast -- 66 adults and 44 children comprising 28 families -- have been placed in temporary housing.

At a regular town hall meeting at a public school on 100th Street and First Avenue, a conversation about the state budget transformed into a prayer vigil for the victims.

Assemb. Robert J. Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents the district where the blast occurred, said survivors who lost their homes will require long-term support and vowed to ensure that would happen.

"These are our neighbors, these are our friends, and we want to make sure we continue to care for them," he said.

Harlem's Bethel Gospel Assembly will hold a special healing service Sunday morning, joined by the mayor. Two of the people killed in the blast belonged to the congregation.

"This will be the first time that the community as a whole body will be together" since the tragedy, said Ruth-Ann Wynter, the church's director of ministry relations.

The pastor of Spanish Christian Church, located in one of the felled five-story buildings, vowed Saturday to rebuild. The Rev. Thomas Perez was later overcome by emotion when firefighters at the scene handed him a dusty, singed Bible.

"It's a very sacred thing for him," Cassano said of the Bible, signed by the church's founders. "At least we have a remnant of the church."

Grassroots support for the displaced families, meanwhile, is growing.

Aurora Anaya-Cerda, 36, who owns La Casa Azul Bookstore on East 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue, said donations flooded in after the store made an appeal on social media.

"Within 24 hours of that our entire basement is filled with clothes, toiletries, food and water," she said Saturday as visitors brought more donations, filling part of the shop's main floor.

With Maria Alvarez

and Candice Ruud

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