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Updated: Thu, 13 Mar 2014 14:57:39 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

New York City gas explosion: 7 dead, more than 60 hurt



New York City firefighters dig through rubble of a building explosion and collapse in the Harlem section of New York, March 12, 2014. Two New York buildings collapsed on Wednesday in an explosion believed to be caused by a gas leak, killing two people, injuring at least 22, and setting off a search for more victims feared trapped in the debris, officials said. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (© UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER)

New York City firefighters dig through rubble of a building explosion and collapse in the Harlem section of New York, March 12, 2014. Two New York buildings collapsed on Wednesday in an explosion believed to be caused by a gas leak, killing two people, injuring at least 22, and setting off a search for more victims feared trapped in the debris, officials said. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER) - RTR3GTXW Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Rescuers working amid below-freezing temperatures and billowing smoke pulled four more bodies Thursday from the rubble of two New York City apartment buildings, raising the death toll to at least seven from a gas leak-triggered explosion that reduced the area to a pile of smashed bricks and mangled metal.

The blast Wednesday morning in Manhattan's heavily Hispanic East Harlem neighbourhood injured more than 60 people, with searchers still trying to locate others a day later. Crews used generator-powered floodlights and thermal imaging cameras to identify heat spots — bodies or pockets of fire — at the site on Park Avenue and 116th Street. Police guarding the scene wore surgical masks, and neighbourhood residents covered faces with scarfs amid the thick, acrid air.

Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said it was "a very terrible and traumatic scene."

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city was "hoping to find others still alive" and then "to determine exactly what happened here."

Edward Kilduff, the Fire Department's chief of department, said the amount of debris had been reduced to about 1 1/2 floors by Thursday morning.

Construction equipment with iron jaws picked up the smouldering debris, first depositing it on the pavement, then hoisting it onto trucks that hauled it away. The debris was a wrecked collection of what were once apartment buildings and residents' belongings.

The blast erupted just 15 minutes after a neighbouring resident reported smelling gas, authorities said. The Con Edison utility said it immediately sent workers, but they didn't arrive until it was too late.

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano and Con Edison CEO John McAvoy said that before the call, they had received no complaints in the last 30 days about a gas leak in the area.

The explosion shattered windows, rained debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks nearby, cast a plume of smoke over the skyline and sent people running into the streets.

Hunter College identified one victim as Griselde Camacho, a 45-year-old security officer who worked for the university.

Also killed was Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist. Her cousin Angel Vargas said the family started a frantic search when she didn't show up for work Wednesday.

Officials in Mexico said two of the victims came from the central Mexican state of Puebla. The state's government identified them as Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, and Rosaura Hernandez Barrios, 22. The government did not say whether the women were related.

The bodies of three unidentified men also were pulled from the rubble, authorities said.

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.

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 odour, 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."

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

Salas' father-in-law, Jorge Ortega, said his distraught daughter, who is six months pregnant and whom he identified as Jennifer Mendoza, went to the hospital Wednesday but was resting at his home on Thursday.

No gas leaks detected during February inspection: Con Edison

Edward Foppiano, a Con Ed senior vice president, said there was only one gas odour complaint on record with the utility from either address, and it was last May, at the building next door to Borrero's. It was a small leak in customer piping and was fixed, he said.

The block was last checked on Feb. 28 as part of a regular leak survey, and no problems were detected, Foppiano said.

City records show that the building Borrero lived in was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu. A phone number listed for Muramatsu rang unanswered.

Records at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development indicate the agency responded to complaints from a tenant and cited Muramatsu in January for a broken outlet, broken plaster, bars over a fire escape, a missing window guard and missing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

The explosion destroyed everything Borrero's family owned, including the ashes of his father, who died a few years ago. Borrero said he assumes his 5-year-old terrier, Nina, was killed.

But "I have my mother and sister," he said. "I'm happy for that."

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