Debris cleared from New York buildings' collapse; focus on gas lines

NEW YORK - New York City emergency crews have cleared the majority of debris from the site where two apartment buildings collapsed in a gas explosion and are nearing the underground area where the gas lines are located, officials said on Saturday.

Eight people - five women and three men - were killed in the explosion early on Wednesday in East Harlem, while dozens more were injured. The collapse of the five-story buildings could be felt up to one mile (1.6 km) away.

Crews made "significant headway clearing the site" on Saturday and were helped by mild weather, New York City Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella said.

Investigators were also steadily making progress getting to the underground area where the buildings' gas lines and meters are located. The area could provide evidence as to what caused the explosion. "There's no reason why they shouldn't be able to reach the basement tomorrow," Parrella said.

No others are believed to be missing as a result of the blast, fire officials said.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates natural gas-related accidents, said Friday it would be conducting pressure tests and interviewing people involved in the response to the blast through the weekend and into next week.

The buildings were leveled just minutes after a resident in the area called 911 to complain about the odour of gas.

Con Edison, the utility provider for New York City, said it had crews on hand to assist both emergency workers and investigative teams.

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

About 50 families were displaced after the blast, according to the Red Cross, which set up a temporary shelter for those unable to return home.

The shelter was being shut down "as the city arranges for residents displaced by this week's East Harlem explosion to be moved to other accommodations," a statement said.