By Chris Francescani and Anna Hiatt
NEW YORK, March 13 Federal safety authorities
launched an investigation on Thursday into a gas explosion that
caused the collapse a day earlier of two New York City apartment
buildings, killing eight people and injuring dozens of others.
The still-smoldering rubble prevented investigators from
getting close enough to examine the main pipe that supplies
natural gas to the Upper East Side neighborhood, said Robert
Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board,
which reviews accidents involving natural gas.
When firefighters say the area is safe, he said,
investigators will conduct a pressure test on the pipe to find
the location of the leak that may have caused the blast.
"We are operating under the assumption at this point that it
is a natural gas leak that led to an explosion," Sumwalt said.
The explosion at about 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT) on Wednesday
shook the East Harlem neighborhood shortly after a resident
complained to the Con Edison utility about a gas odor.
Sumwalt said the scene was "in one word, devastating."
"You've got basically two five-story buildings that have
been reduced to essentially a three-story pile of bricks and
twisted metal," he said. "The smell of smoke is omnipresent."
Five women and three men were killed, police said, but not
all victims' identities have been released. The latest victim
was female and pulled from the rubble late on Thursday, police
Victims include Griselde Camacho, 44, a public safety
officer for Hunter College in East Harlem; Carmen Tanco, 67, a
dental hygienist; Rosaura Hernandez, 21, and Andreas
Mayor Bill de Blasio said 40 people were injured. He
declined at an earlier news conference to say how many remain
unaccounted for, although New York City police earlier said five
people are still missing.
At least three children were hurt; two were treated for
minor injuries and released, while a third was in critical
condition, hospital officials said.
The two buildings on a largely residential block at East
116th Street and Park Avenue housed 15 apartments, a
ground-floor church and a piano store.
Residents of seven nearby buildings, with nearly 90
apartments, lost heating and gas services.
NTSB's Sumwalt said the main, low-pressure gas distribution
line that runs along Park Avenue was still intact. Service lines
carry gas into buildings from that main pipe, he said.
Passersby in the primarily Latino neighborhood donned dust
masks or wrapped winter scarves around their faces to limit
inhalation of dust and smoke.
The mayor said 66 people who lost their apartments or could
not stay there have been given shelter.
"Anyone affected by this tragedy will be helped - anyone -
regardless of immigration status... They should not be afraid,"
de Blasio said.
The mayor lamented that the neighbor who called Con Ed at
9:13 a.m. (1313 GMT) on Wednesday failed to call the night
before, when he first noticed the gas odor.
"That might have given us an opportunity here," de Blasio
said, urging anyone who smells gas to immediately call Con
Edison or the city's complaint line at 311.
Consolidated Edison Inc spokesman Bob McGee said the
last time the utility had received a complaint about a gas odor
in the neighborhood was in May.
At that time, Con Ed shut off the gas and the building hired
its own contractor to fix the leak. On July 3, Con Ed crews
returned to the building to certify that repairs were done
correctly, McGee said.
On Feb. 10 and Feb. 28, there were "high speed" checks made
of the gas pipes, he said.
Sumwalt added: "We have not lost sight of the fact that many
people's lives have been affected, many people's lives have been
shattered by this tragic event, and we don't take that lightly.
"Our goal for being here is to find out what happened so
that nobody has to go through this again," he said.