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Gas blast destroys 2 NY buildings; 6 people dead

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 4:55am  ET

Emergency workers respond to the scene of an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee says a resident from a building adjacent to the two that collapsed reported that he smelled gas inside his apartment, but thought the odor could be coming from outside. (AP Photo/Jeremy Sailing)
  • Gallery: (15 images)

JAKE PEARSON
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- A gas leak triggered an earthshaking explosion that flattened two apartment buildings on Wednesday, killing at least six people and injuring more than 60. A tenant said residents had complained repeatedly in recent weeks about "unbearable" gas smells.

Rescue workers began the search for victims Wednesday evening amid the broken bricks, splintered wood and mangled metal after firefighters spent most of the day dousing the flames. Heavy equipment, including back hoes and a bulldozer, arrived to clear the mountain of debris where the two five-story East Harlem buildings stood. Flood lights were put in place. Thermal imaging cameras were used to identify heat spots -- bodies or pockets of fire.

Just after the explosion, nine residents were said to be missing, but as the number of dead increased the number of unaccounted for occupants dropped.

The recovery was facing hardship in the form of the weather, which was expected to drop into the 20s with rain. Some parts of the debris pile were inaccessible because of a sinkhole caused by a subsurface water main break, officials said.

The fiery blast, on Park Avenue at 116th Street, not far from the edge of Central Park, erupted 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."

Emanuel Rivera, 24, lives on the corner of 116th and Park Avenue, across the street from the blast site. He was at home sleeping with his wife Rehanna and their two children when it happened.

"All you heard was boom. The whole building shook. We looked outside and there was a bunch of smoke. Everything was in flames," he said.

Like several other neighbors, Rivera said they started smelling gas Tuesday night.

"The smell of gas was there since yesterday night," he said.

Hunter College identified one of the people killed in the blast as Griselde Camacho, a security officer who worked at the Silberman School of Social Work building. Hunter, in a statement on its website, said Camacho, 45, had worked for the college since 2008.

Another of the people who died was Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist. Her cousin News 12 cameraman Angel Vargas said when she didn't show up for work Wednesday the family started a frantic search.

Police identified the third fatal victim as Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios, 21.

The bodies of three unidentified people also were found: an adult male pulled from the rubble just after midnight Wednesday; a woman found about 2:50 a.m. Thursday; and a man discovered about a half hour later.

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.

Fire officials said some people were unaccounted for but cautioned they may not have been in the buildings.

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.

Jennifer Salas lived in one of the buildings. She told The New York Times her husband, Jordy Salas, and her dog were in the building at the time of the collapse and were missing.

"There's six floors in the building; each floor has one apartment," she said. "Last night it smelled like gas, but then the smell vanished and we all went to sleep."

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Listen to a live stream of WCBS in New York on the explosion and building collapse.

Watch a video from WABC with coverage from the scene: