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Death toll reaches 8 in East Harlem building explosion

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Hot spots were causing more smoke to pour from the rubble of the buildings as firefighters searched for bodies. Three people are still unaccounted for.

NEW YORK (AP/PIX11) — An eighth person has been confirmed killed by an explosion that flattened two New York City apartment buildings.

The person’s identity has not yet been released.  Firefighters are still looking for more victims.

The latest recovery comes after officials confirmed at about 7:20 a.m. Thursday morning that a seventh body had been pulled from the debris.

Fire department spokesman Michael Parrella says the body of an unidentified male was found in the rubble around 3:15 a.m. Thursday. A half hour earlier, a woman’s body had been found.

Those who have been identified are Griselde Camacho, 44, a Hunter College public safety officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist; Rosaura Hernandez, 21, and Andreas Panagopoulos, 43.

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A gas leak triggered the explosion Wednesday morning on Park Avenue and 116th Street. The blast also injured more than 60 people. At least three of the injured were children.

The explosion shattered windows a block away, cast a plume of smoke over the skyline and sent people running into the streets.

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Carmen Tanco, 67 (L) and Griselde Camacho, 44, were among the victims that perished in the explosion.

Authorities say the fiery blast erupted about 9:30 a.m., about 15 minutes after a neighboring resident reported smelling gas.

Amid strong winds and cold, the search through the rubble continued overnight and into the morning in East Harlem.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city officials toured the site of two collapsed buildings in East Harlem as workers continued to search for additional victims.

The group stood just feet from the pile of still-smoldering rubble Thursday morning. Workers doused water on the debris, which was being removed by heavy-duty equipment.

Fire Chief Edward Kilduff said the debris was down to about one-and-a-half floors since the blast on Wednesday.

The mayor and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverto greeted about a dozen firefighters working on the recovery.

Last night, rescuers’ efforts were hampered by a sinkhole in front of the buildings, according to city officials.  The sinkhole was caused by a water main possibly broken in the explosion, and was preventing heavy equipment from reaching the site.

Neighbors had been complaining of the smell of gas for days before the explosion, but Con Edison said it had received no reports of a problem there until this morning, minutes before the blast.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which oversees gas-pipe infrastructure,  is investigating but hasn’t had a chance to explore the site in any depth yet.

The agency said old cast-iron pipes like the one feeding the destroyed buildings are a source of concern, and have played roles in explosions in Birmingham, Ala. and Allentown, Pa.

It was too early to know what the possible cause may be of the East Harlem  natural gas explosion.

There was no warning in advance,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a news conference.  “It’s a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication.”

The blast left a scene of utter devastation, with firefighters mounting the piles of rubble as they carefully used buckets to cart out debris.

Glass, brick and other debris were flung far and wide, including on Metro-North tracks across from the buildings that were destroyed, which housed a church and a piano repair shop, and apartments above. The blast reduced the air quality for miles around the blast scene, with a chunk of the city covered in acrid smoke.

Many likened the blast to an earthquake, and indeed, the blast registered just under a .5 on seismograms geologists use to measure temblors.

The blast was felt miles away, with one PIX11 viewer feeling the shake reporting she felt the blast on 174th Street in the Bronx.

Spanish Christian Church at 1644 Park Ave. and Absolute Piano Repair at 1646 Park Ave. were on the first floors of the buildings.

I actually thought the train had either collided with another train or fell off. That’s how loud the boom was. I live a block away And the sound of that I actually thought it was an earthquake. The way it sounded for a minute,” said neighborhood resident Brandon Whitaker.

Justine Rodriguez, who lives right next to the explosion site, said, the explosion shook her from sleep.

“Well I was asleep. My bed was right next to the windows. As soon as the windows came crashing and it’s all over my bed and floors. It cut me up in the back of my leg. I’m just thankful that no one else was home,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez contacted Con Edison before the explosion.

“My mom said she had smelled gas before leaving to work with my sister. They smelled gas since very early in the morning. I heard they contacted Con Ed before the explosion,” she said.

A woman who identified herself as Ayesha panicked after she was trapped in the apartment.

“I was trapped in the apartment. I had to think fast and get a knife to get the locks opened. That didn’t work, so I started hitting the door  and calling for help but my neighbor kicked the door open. Thank God I had ran down the stairs and as I got out of the building — there were bodies laying around. I didn’t know what was going on. This was beyond a trail derailment or something. I was just scared out of my mind. “

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