(AP Photo/Julio Cortez). Workers survey an area covered in rubble Friday, March 14, 2014, two days after a natural gas explosion leveled two apartment buildings in New York.
NEW YORK CITY (AP) -
A church hit by the loss of two
members in an explosion that destroyed two New York City apartment
buildings remembered the women in services Sunday with tears mixing in
with the sounds of gospel, as members of a church that was demolished in
the collapse joined another nearby house of worship for its service.
At the site of the blast, the last of the debris
was being cleared away as investigators prepared to get started on
finding the cause.
Bethel Gospel Assembly lost members Griselde
Camacho and Carmen Tanco in the blast that also killed six others in the
East Harlem neighborhood.
"We feel the void. Both women were very active
members," said Michelle Robinson, the church's business administrator,
adding that Tanco often served as an usher at services and would greet
her fellow congregants at the door.
"We are a family and we're all just missing the big hugs she used to give," Robinson said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was scheduled to
speak at the church, and then visit the house of worship where members
of the Spanish Christian Church were spending Sunday. The Spanish
Christian Church was located in one of the two collapsed buildings. On
Saturday a crew at the blast site found a large Bible in the rubble and
returned it to the church's pastor.
At the scene of the explosion on Park Avenue and
116th Street, there were signs that the initial cleanup was coming to an
end. Police barricades that had kept people away since Wednesday's
blast were moved closer into the site, and pedestrians who had been kept
far away were now allowed to walk closer.
The theory that Wednesday's explosion was due to a
gas leak gained momentum Friday after the National Transportation Safety
Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, said underground tests
conducted in the hours after the explosion registered high
concentrations of natural gas. The NTSB will conduct its own inquiry
after police and fire officials determine what might have caused the
City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said
Saturday that investigators should be able to get to the gas pipes and
meters in the front of the buildings' basements Sunday, adding, "We'll
be in full swing with the investigation."
Arson detectives and fire marshals have been
waiting to enter the basements to examine meters, check pipes and
inspect any possible ignition sources, such as light switches, that
might have caused the blast.
Cassano said all but 15 percent of the rubble from the buildings had been cleared away late Saturday.
Truckloads of scattered material will be sifted for
any traces of human remains that might not have been found at the site,
Cassano said. Although the bodies of all eight people reported missing
have been recovered, the rescue operation was continuing in case others
may be buried beneath the rubble, he said.
More than 60 people were injured in the explosion, and more than 100 others were displaced.
Police have identified six of those who died:
Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Tanco, 67, a dental
hygienist who participated 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 another Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.
The name of the eighth person recovered, a woman, hasn't been released.
Investigators were trying to determine whether the
explosion had anything to do with the city's aging gas and water mains,
some of which were installed in the 1800s. More than 30,000 miles of
decades-old, decaying cast-iron pipe still are being used to deliver gas
nationwide, according to U.S. Transportation Department estimates.
Fire and utility officials said that if the
buildings were plagued in recent days or weeks by strong gas odors, as
some tenants contend, they have no evidence anyone reported it before
Wednesday. 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 blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone
from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. Con
Edison said it immediately sent workers to check out the report but
they got there too late.
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