In New York City blast probe, investigators focus on gas lines

NEW YORK Tue Mar 18, 2014 11:40am EDT

New York City emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

New York City emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. investigators were looking into gas lines and meters to determine what caused a natural gas explosion last week that leveled two New York City apartment buildings and killed eight people, fatalities that a city official said were accidental.

Five women and three men died of burns, smoke inhalation or blunt-force trauma as the five-story buildings collapsed in the East Harlem neighborhood on March 12, a spokeswoman from the New York City Medical Examiner said Tuesday. All the deaths were accidental, she said.

The buildings came down moments after a resident in the area called 911 to complain of the smell of gas, and the force of the explosion was felt up to a mile away.

On Monday, a Harlem resident filed the first lawsuit relating to the blast, charging utility Consolidated Edison Inc and the owner of one of the buildings with negligence.

The suit by Harlem resident Michelle Nelson contends that she "was caused to sustain serious injuries and to have suffered pain, shock, mental anguish." It says the utility and landlord were "negligent in the ownership, operation, management, control, maintenance, repair and/or construction of the aforesaid premises and its natural gas service lines."

A spokesman for Con Edison said on Tuesday the company would review "the complaint at an appropriate time."

Representatives of the building's owner could not immediately be reached.

Police identified the final victim on Monday as Japanese tourist Mayumi Nakamura, 34. Nakamura had been staying in one of the buildings that fell, and it took longer to release her identity as her family had to travel from Japan to identify her, authorities said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that looks into accidents involving pipelines carrying hazardous materials, has taken charge of the investigation after emergency crews finished removing debris from the site over the weekend.

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said more information from the investigation was expected to be released later on Tuesday.

Last week, the agency said that preliminary tests had indicated a high concentration of gas underground.

Con Edison said two spot checks of the building's gas equipment in February had shown that all systems were operating normally.

"We're working with the City, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross to assist the affected families with their expenses in the wake of the tragedy," Con Edison spokesman Sidney Alvarez said.

About 60 families, or 100 people, were evacuated from the neighborhood following the collapse of the buildings and many have yet to return to their homes as the investigation continues.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

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