Advertisement

East Harlem explosion: Tests detect natural gas underground near site of NYC blast

ABOVE: NYC Mayor vows city will support those who lost everything in Harlem building explosion

STORY HIGHLIGHTS:

  • NTSB tests detect gas near blast site
  • An eighth body has been pulled from the rubble left behind by a massive natural gas explosion that destroyed two five-storey apartment buildings in New York City.
  • Five people are still missing following Wednesday’s fiery blast.
  • The buildings were served by a cast-iron gas main that was installed 127 years ago.
  • IN PICTURES: Take a look at before and after photos of the East Harlem explosion here

NEW YORK — Federal investigators say underground tests conducted in the hours after a deadly New York City gas explosion detected the presence of natural gas.

NTSB team member Robert Sumwalt says the latest information seems to support the hypothesis that the explosion, which killed eight people, was caused by a gas leak.

Story continues below advertisement

Sumwalt said Friday that the utility Consolidated Edison dug 50 holes about 18 to 24 inches deep around the blast site and measured gas levels in those cavities soon after the explosion.

Want the latest news on the East Harlem explosion? Go to our featured page here.

He says the gas concentration was up to 20 per cent in at least five spots. He says normal levels in New York City soil should be zero.

He says workers have begun the process of pressure testing pipes to identify possible holes.

The NTSB investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters.

Authorities also hoped to reach the basement — still buried under rubble — to examine heating units, meters and other equipment that might hold clues to the blast, fire department Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “We can only get conclusive evidence when the fire is out, when the rescue is completed, and we really get a chance to look at all the facts.”

Rescuers continue searching rubble 

Using sound devices to probe for voices and telescopic cameras to peer into small spaces, workers searching a pile of rubble from a gas explosion in New York City continued to treat it Friday as a rescue operation, holding onto the possibility of finding survivors from a blast that brought down two apartment buildings and killed at least eight people.

Story continues below advertisement

“We have to think of survivors and work in that way, with hope,” said Fire Department of New York Chief Edward Kilduff.

The search work was slow going, with 40 percent to 50 percent of the debris removed by Thursday evening. Kilduff said a fire was still burning, and the force of the explosion collapsed and pancaked layers of floors. A back wall that still freestanding posed a collapse hazard.

GALLERY: Before and after photos of East Harlem explosion

Workers planned to spend a full day removing debris at the site on Friday, and hoped to make it down to the first floor by Saturday, then move on to the basement.

It’s meticulous work. About a dozen firefighters picked through charred wood and bits of metal in frigid conditions overnight, seeking human remains or anything that could help the investigation. Smoke was still rising from the debris, the smell apparent even a block away.

Story continues below advertisement

At least five people were unaccounted for after the deafening blast Wednesday morning destroyed two five-story East Harlem apartment buildings at Park Avenue and 116th Street that were served by an 1887 cast-iron gas main. More than 60 people were injured. Investigators were trying to pinpoint the leak and determine whether it had anything to do with the city’s aging gas and water mains, some from the 1800s.

Fire and utility officials said that if the buildings were plagued in recent days or weeks by strong gas odors, as some tenants contended, they have no evidence anyone reported it before Wednesday.

Building explosion puts focus on NYC’s aging infrastructure

Aging infrastructure — crumbling bridges, highways, water mains and gas lines — has become a major concern in recent years, especially in older cities in the Northeast, and has been blamed for explosions, floods and other accidents.

“We know this is a fundamental challenge for New York City and any older city,” de Blasio said. But he said the federal government needs to provide more aid to cities to deal with the problem.

As cold, stiff winds blew across the still-smoldering debris, construction equipment with iron jaws picked up the rubble, first depositing it on the pavement, then hoisting it onto trucks that hauled it away. Clouds of thick smoke swirled over Park Avenue.

Story continues below advertisement

The mayor told firefighters carrying grappling hooks and other equipment, “I can only imagine, knowing that at any moment you might find a body, how difficult that is.”

Victims identified, 5 still missing

Police identified six of the dead: Griselde Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who took part in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician; Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the buildings that collapsed; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker.

Mexican officials said a Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.

The body of unidentified eighth person was pulled from the rubble on Thursday.

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.

Residents say they ‘smelled gas’ before explosion

The blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. The Con Edison utility said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they got there too late.

Con Ed CEO John McAvoy said the call had been correctly categorized as low priority. “A single person calling that they smelled gas outside of a building is not something that would warrant a fire department response,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

After the disaster, a number of neighborhood residents said they smelled gas on Tuesday but didn’t report it. A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said that residents had complained to the landlord about the gas odors on Tuesday and that fire officials were also called a few weeks ago.

But Cassano and McAvoy said that before Wednesday, the fire department and Con Ed had received no complaints in the last 30 days about a gas leak in the area.

NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis said detectives had have interviewed the landlords of both buildings to help identify occupants and tenants, but he didn’t immediately know if they’d been interviewed about reports of gas leaks by tenants.

An Associated Press analysis of the city’s 311 calls database from Jan. 1, 2013, through Tuesday also found no calls from the buildings about gas.

The lesson, De Blasio said, is that because of the city’s old and vulnerable infrastructure, people should heed the post-Sept. 11, 2001, slogan, “If you see something, say something.”

Sumwalt said the NTSB would be checking calls to the city’s 911 emergency line and 311 information line and interviewing witnesses, first responders, the injured and those who smelled gas.

The working-class neighborhood around the site was once known as Spanish Harlem because of its large population of Puerto Ricans but now has many Asians and other ethnic groups. The neighborhood is gentrifying but still has a high crime rate, fueled by drugs and gangs.

Story continues below advertisement

Storefronts range from fast-food shops to botanicas selling folk medicine and religious items.

More than 30,000 miles of decades-old, decaying cast-iron pipe are still being used to deliver gas nationwide, according to the U.S. Transportation Department estimates. In 2011, the American Gas Association said replacement or repair could cost $82 billion.

New York City still uses about 3,000 miles of old cast iron, Boston about 2,000 miles, Philadelphia about 1,500 and Washington 400, the department said. Experts said much of the pipe dates to before World War II, and some of it may even be more than 100 years old.