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Searchers sift rubble in aftermath of NY building collapse

An excavator clears debris at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
An excavator clears debris at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Search and rescue workers on Friday combed the still-smoldering rubble for victims of a gas explosion that caused two New York City apartment buildings to collapse this week, killing eight people and injuring dozens.

The blast shook the East Harlem neighborhood on Wednesday morning, shortly after a resident complained to the Con Edison utility about a gas odor.

Since then, authorities have parsed the smoking pile of bricks and twisted metal that at one point was three stories high in an effort to find any remaining victims.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which reviews natural gas-related accidents, said in an afternoon news conference that it would be overseeing pressure tests and interviewing people involved in the response through the weekend and into next week.

Meanwhile, the city's fire department said it is still in the process of removing and sifting through the debris, and that it hopes to have the area cleared by Saturday.

"We have eight victims found at this point. We are still in rescue, recovery operations," said New York Fire Department spokesman Brian Norton. "We do not stop until we are 100 percent sure there is nobody left."

Search-and-rescue efforts will continue on Friday even though there are no known persons still missing, police said.

Five women and three men were killed, police said on Friday, but not all victim identities have been released. The latest was female and pulled from the rubble late on Thursday.

The dead 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 Panagopoulos, 43.

At least three children were hurt; two were treated for minor injuries and released, while the third was more seriously injured, hospital officials said.

Con Edison said that gas odor complaints have increased three-fold since the accident.

The two buildings in a largely residential block at East 116th Street and Park Avenue housed 15 apartments, a ground-floor church and a piano store.

Passersby in the primarily Latino neighborhood donned dust masks or wrapped winter scarves around their faces to limit inhalation of dust and smoke.

The main, low-pressure gas distribution line that runs along Park Avenue was still intact, the NTSB said. Service lines carry gas into buildings from that main pipe.

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gunna Dickson)

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