NEW YORK—East Harlem returned to its usual bustle Thursday as first responders continued a delicate search and rescue effort amid a smoldering two-story pile of rubble.
The pile was all that was left of two buildings flattened the day before by a thunderous explosion. The blast and collapse killed at least 8 people, injured at least 40, shattered windows in adjacent buildings, and turned the area around East 116th Street and Park Avenue into what one resident called a war zone.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) summed up the experience at the scene as “devastating,” but pointed out that firefighters are carefully picking through the smoldering mess of bricks and twisted metal.
“It’s a delicate dance of interagency activity,” Sumwalt said.
FDNY Chief of Department Edward Kilduff said Thursday morning first responders had two and a half floors of debris to sort through.
By early evening workers were about 40 percent to 50 percent through the rubble, using sound devices and putting telescopic video cameras into small voids to see if there is someone in there.
Officials could not confirm the exact number of the missing. Five ambulances idled nearby through the day.
The smell from the rubble spread blocks away and the high winds whipped up dust and ash from the streets. Emergency personnel passed out facemasks to residents who entered the barricades.
The city evacuated 89 residential units in nearby buildings. A Red Cross shelter nearby held 66 people Thursday, 14 of whom were families with children, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
The mayor visited the first responders at the scene and praised them for braving the cold, the wind, and the distressing work of digging through the wreckage.
“Everyone involved in the rescue effort has given their all,” de Blasio said at City Hall. “No matter what is thrown at them, they keep fighting.”
“I can only imagine knowing that at any moment you might find a body, how difficult that is,” de Blasio said to Kilduff in Harlem. “I admire the work you guys do. I really do. It’s not easy.”
On Thursday evening, blocks away from the disaster and outside the police barricade, Spanish music filled the streets bustling with a crowd of locals, emergency personnel, and media. People laughed in packed barbershops and nail salons.
But in the distance, giant grapplers emerged from the smoke, over and over, with loads of debris, and deposited them on Park Avenue to be doused by fire hoses. The iron jaws would then pick up the wreckage again and lift it over the smoke exposing momentarily the occasional remnants of domestic life—ripped curtains, twisted bed frames, and broken chairs—before releasing it all into red top-loader trucks.
Once one truck was full, another would arrive.
“It’s a lot of debris,” said firefighter Daniel Sambrato. “It’s our job.”
Police identified four 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, a musician; and Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico.
Mexican officials said a Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.
The latest victim is Andreas Panagopoulos, whose identity was confirmed Thursday afternoon.
A close friend, Evangelos Alkimos, said he went with Panagopoulos’s wife to the medical examiner’s office. Alkimos describes his friend as a “very creative” and “amazing” musician who played guitar and keyboard.
Camacho and Tanco, were remembered Thursday as active, well-loved members of their church. Camacho and Tanco were members of the Bethel Gospel Assembly, located in a building a few blocks from the scene of Wednesday’s explosion, church officials said.
Camacho, 45, a public safety officer at Hunter College, volunteered as an audio-visual technician at the church, operating the PowerPoint presentations during Bishop Carlton T. Brown’s sermons. Brown said Camacho “was always seeking to do her best, eager to serve, eager to please.”
Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist, had gone on medical missions with the church to South Africa, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic. She had been planning to return to the Dominican Republic in July for another mission. Associate pastor Gordon Williams said Tanco “was known as ‘Auntie’ to just about everybody.”
“She was always looking to bless and help and be there,” Williams said.
A cousin of Tanco’s, television cameraman Angel Vargas, said Tanco moved to New York from Puerto Rico around 1970. He said she had been married and divorced and had no children. She was a cherished presence at family gatherings over the years.
“She was always that person who would get up and dance and have fun with everyone,” he said. “She was the life of the party.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.