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Videos captured East Harlem blast; 8th body recovered

Search and recovery continues Thursday, March 13, 2014,

Search and recovery continues Thursday, March 13, 2014, the day after a deadly building explosion in East Harlem. Credit: Craig Ruttle

City officials said an eighth body was found in the still-smoldering rubble of the East Harlem buildings explosion Thursday, and revealed that there was no history of complaints about gas leaks before the explosion that leveled two apartment houses.

Officials from Con Edison, the NYPD and the FDNY all said they found no record of official complaints about a gas smell prior to the one that came minutes before the Wednesday blast.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the pipe attached to the main gas main was still intact and the cause of the explosion remains a mystery.

Police have found surveillance videos that captured the blast. An examination of those recordings by neighborhood security cameras may provide clues as to how the explosion occurred.

Sumwalt, who briefed reporters near the scene at East 116th Street and Park Avenue, described the blast as "devastating," adding, "You've got basically two five-story buildings that have been reduced to essentially a three-story pile of bricks and twisted metal."

Police identified the dead as: Griselde Camacho, 44, a Hunter College security officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who took part in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; and they told The Associated Press that Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician, had also been killed. The NYPD said Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios, 21, a restaurant cook from Mexico; her mother, Rosaura Barrios, 44; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the collapsed buildings; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker, were also among the dead.

City officials Thursday night would not say how many people remained unaccounted for. The city is sheltering 66 people made homeless by the blast, who will be placed in hotels and affordable housing, officials said.

As the investigation into the blast's cause went forward, John McAvoy, chief executive of Con Edison, said the utility searched its records going back three years and found only two calls about gas problems on the block where the explosion took place, and both of those, in 2011 and 2013, were problems with the customer's equipment.

FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said his agency checked records for the past 30 days and found no reports of gas leaks in the immediate area.

McAvoy said the building's gas pipes were inspected Feb. 10 and 28 and "no leaks were identified at that time."

The report of a gas smell came from a lone caller at 9:13 a.m. Wednesday, and Con Ed dispatched workers at 9:15 a.m. The explosion happened at 9:31 a.m., before the crew arrived at the building.

McAvoy said that if more people had reported the gas leak in East Harlem, "there's a very high likelihood" the fatal explosion could have been prevented.

The call had been classified as "low" priority instead of urgent, which would have alerted the fire department while utility crews responded, McAvoy said.

In a news conference, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said the department "viewed our calls from 311 and 911 back to 2010. They had no record of any calls relative to gas leaks in that area."

Once conditions become safer, investigators will run a pressure test on the gas-distribution line that runs along Park Avenue, Sumwalt said.

The line did not show any "obvious to the eye" damage from what officials could see after a sinkhole opened in front of the buildings and after parts of the street were excavated, he said. If no leaks are found, service lines from the distribution pipe to the buildings will be tested, he said.

About 150 firefighters were still struggling Thursday to control lingering hot spots as rescuers, working in still smoke-laden air, sifted through piles of debris at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. to look for victims at a site that became more precarious Wednesday night when a remaining back wall of one of the buildings burned.

"I've seen an occasional flare-up of fire, and the smell of smoke is omnipresent," Sumwalt added. "All of this underscores that this is an active search-and-recovery operation."

Mayor Bill de Blasio said city officials have ratcheted up the search for answers as residents mourned the loss of loved ones and their homes.

"We know there was an explosion; we don't know everything about the lead-up to it and that is why we are doing a thorough investigation," he said.

Investigators want to pinpoint whether the infrastructure was to blame or the leak stemmed from someplace else. They also want to know if a water-main break, which caused a sinkhole in the area, played a role.

Robert Malanga, an engineer who specializes in fires and explosions, said the surveillance footage could indicate if the explosion began in the upper or lower stories of the buildings, a clue to how long gas was leaking.

"If you had a slow developing leak, it would tend to migrate to the upper part of the building and reach explosive limits," Malanga said. "A rapidly developing leak would tend to center down closer to the ground."

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