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De Blasio: ‘Every Energy Is Going To Be Expended’ To Determine Cause Of Harlem Explosion

NTSB Begins Its Investigation, But Has Problems Gaining Access To The Blast Site
Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave in East Harlem on March 12, 2014. (Photo by Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor of New York/Getty Images)

Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire and building collapse at 1646 Park Ave in East Harlem on March 12, 2014. (Photo by Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor of New York/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – City officials were refuting reports Thursday that complaints about gas leaks at the site of Thursday’s massive explosion in East Harlem were ignored by police, fire and Con Edison.

Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed a full investigation into what caused the blast, which killed at least eight and injured more than 60, CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported.

“We know there was an explosion, but we don’t know everything about the lead up to it and that’s why we’re doing a thorough investigation and, by the way, we can only get conclusive evidence when the fire is out,” de Blasio said.

The mayor vowed to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for the cause.

“Every energy is going to be expended,” de Blasio said.

Sources told CBS 2 there are two key questions: What caused the gas pipe to burst and what caused the actual ignition?

Con Edison has launched a thorough review of its records of gas pipes in the area of the explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board also has officially begun its investigation into the blast, but cannot yet get to the scene due to safety issues.

Agency board member Robert Sumwalt said as of Thursday, a day after the explosion, the scene was “in a word, devastating.”

“We’ve got basically two five-story buildings that have been reduced, essentially, to a three-story pile of bricks and twisted metal. I’ve seen an occasional flare-up of fire, and the smell of smoke is omnipresent,” Sumwalt said. “All of this underscores that this is an active search and recovery operation — an active search and rescue operation carefully removing debris.”

The scene is also too dangerous for NTSB investigators to get in there.

“We are not able to get in up close and personal to begin close examination of the pipe. We’re not able to do that until the FDNY determines that the area is safe,” Sumwalt said.

Once the NTSB has site access, crews will conduct a pressure test of the pipe, Sumwalt said. But the NTSB has already come to some early conclusions about the low-pressure pipe.

“Running up and down Park Avenue, we’ve got a distribution line, and coming off that distribution line, you have service lines going into the respective buildings,” he said. “That pipe is still intact. That’s unlike the other pipeline accidents that I’ve been to, where the pipe is thrown out of a crater. This pipe is still in the ground.”

The forthcoming pressure test will shed light on the source of the leak, Sumwalt said. As of now, the NTSB has not determined where the gas leak originated, and has not narrowed down whether the leak was in the service pipe rather than coming from a heater or a stove.

The NTSB is at least “operating under the assumption at this point that it is a natural gas leak that led to an explosion,” Sumwalt said.

As to a water main break that was discovered at the scene later, Sumwalt said the NTSB would be looking into “whether the water main break was a result of the explosion, or it may have some how led to the explosion,” 1010 WINS’ Eileen Lehpamer reported.

The water main break left a crater that interfered with fire crews’ search efforts Wednesday afternoon.

Investigators were on the scene Thursday afternoon, and were to have a progress meeting at 7 p.m., Sumwalt said.

Meanwhile, Con Ed spokesman Bob McGee said Thursday that methane-detection trucks found nothing amiss in the neighborhood on Feb. 28 and Feb. 10.

McGee said the mobile surveys are done periodically, especially when there are extreme temperature fluctuations, salt on the street or other factors that might affect the underground infrastructure.

PHOTOS: East Harlem Blast | Search & Rescue Under Way

Con Edison said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they didn’t arrive until it was too late.

Many in the neighborhood have claimed they had previously smelled a gas odor in the area and some said they had reported it to 311.

A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said residents had complained to the landlord about smelling gas as recently as Tuesday.

A few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odor, which he said was so bad that a tenant on the top floor broke open the door to the roof for ventilation.

“It was unbearable,” said Borrero, who lived in a second-floor apartment with his mother and sister. None of them were home at the time of the explosion. “You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out.”

“There’s six floors in the building; each floor has one apartment,” said Jennifer Salas, who also lived in one of the buildings. “Last night it smelled like gas, but then the smell vanished and we all went to sleep.”

Edward Foppiano, a Con Ed senior vice president, said there was only one gas odor complaint on record with the utility from either address, and it was last May, at the building next door to Borrero’s. It was a small leak in customer piping and was fixed, he said.

The block was last checked on Feb. 28 as part of a regular leak survey, and no problems were detected, Foppiano said.

One of the side-by-side buildings had a piano store on the first floor, the other a storefront church.

City records show that the building Borrero lived in was owned by Kaoru Muramatsu, proprietor of the piano business. A phone number listed for Muramatsu rang unanswered.

Records at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development indicate the agency responded to complaints from a tenant and cited Muramatsu in January for a broken outlet, broken plaster, bars over a fire escape, a missing window guard and missing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

City building records don’t show any work in progress at either address, but the building owned by the Spanish Christian Church had obtained permits and installed 120 feet of gas pipe last June.

Con Ed said it remains to be seen whether the leak was in a company main or in customer-installed inside plumbing.

The gas main that serves the area was made of plastic and cast iron, and the iron dated to 1887, Foppiano said.

“Age is not in and of itself an issue with cast iron,” he said, noting that Con Edison has a cast iron replacement program and the pipe was not slated to be removed in the next three-year period.

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