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Red Cross Helping Residents Displaced By East Harlem Blast

Relatives Search For Missing Loved Ones As Death Toll Rises

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – The American Red Cross of Greater New York on Thursday was assisting dozens of residents displaced by a massive explosion and fire in East Harlem that reduced two buildings to rubble — killing at least eight people and injuring dozens more.

The sudden explosion Wednesday morning on Park Avenue just off 116th Street hurled bricks, glass and other debris across the neighborhood, and sent flames and thick smoke billowing into the air.

The blast also leveled two, five-story buildings that housed a church, a piano store and more than a dozen apartments.

EAST HARLEM EXPLOSION: Photos | Videos

As CBS 2’s Sonia Rincon reported Thursday, when the buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. collapsed and burned, the blast violently shook 1652 Park Ave. next door.

Aisha Wyatts had just taken her kids to school at the time.

“The ceiling and the walls came crumbling down. So I tried to walk to the door, you know, tried to run to the door to get out of the apartment,” she said. “I couldn’t get out of the apartment. I was stuck.”

The door was jammed. Wyatts said she thought of her children as she banged on the wall.

“I said to myself, ‘Don’t you die in this apartment, you have three kids, you got to be a mother to them,'” Wyatts said. “So I said let me think, 9/11, let me start banging, bang on the doors, let people hear you, let them hear your voice. Cry for help.”

Her neighbor heard her cries and kicked down her door, CBS 2’s Weijia Jiang reported. They got out with moments to spare.

“It’s gone, it’s demolished,” Wyatts said.

Elizabeth Alvarez and her 9-year-old twins were among the nearly 70 people who spent the night at a shelter at the Salvation Army building on 125th Street.

“My kids are fine,” she said. “Now it’s my cat and what’s going to happen going forward. I don’t know what’s going to happen, if I’m going to have a home after this, I don’t know.”

The city has opened a Resident Service Center at the shelter to help residents get information about how they can be connected with resources, from clothing to longer-term housing options, the Red Cross said.

Oscar Martinez was among those who needed shelter. He has got a wife and four kids, and thinks it will probably be too dangerous in an adjacent building at their apartment for a while.

“It’s very smoky; we can’t breathe,” Martinez said in Spanish.

Martinez said it wouldn’t be safe for the children to breathe in all the smoke and dust.

Many of the of the people coming in and out of what the Red Cross called the Resident Service Center here were too upset to talk about what they had gone through.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said anyone impacted by the deadly blast will be helped at the service center “regardless of immigration status.” He said city agencies are there to help everyone and no one should be afraid to ask for help. The district of Wednesday’s explosion has a large Hispanic population.

Mental health and religious counselors were available inside the shelter to help them deal with the traumatic experience and what they saw and survived. CBS 2 was told the housing assistance table had the longest line here Thursday, and the space will most likely be used as a shelter again Thursday night for those who need it.

THE VICTIMS

So far, eight people are confirmed dead in the blast, but not everyone has been identified. More than 60 people were also hurt.

Thursday afternoon, officials said Musician Andreas Panagopoulos was among those killed in the blast. Panagopoulos was a musician.

A close friend, Evangelos Alkimos, told the Associated Press he went with Panagopoulos’ wife to the New York City Medical Examiner’s office and described his friend as a “very creative” and “amazing” musician who played guitar and keyboard.

Among those killed was 67-year-old Carmen Tanco, who took off every Wednesday from her job as a dental assistant.

Sunday school teacher Cortez was also a cousin of Tanco’s.

“Totally devastated and shocked — not only because of her, but that was my church I belonged all of my life — 56 years,” Cortez said.

Three generations of Tanco’s family lived at 1644 Park Ave., and Tanco herself had lived there for 40 years.

“I was hoping that she had left the building to go do something else, but unfortunately that did not happen,” Cortez said.

Hunter College identified another victim as Griselde Camacho, a public safety officer who worked at the Silberman School of Social Work building.

Hunter, in a statement on its website, said Camacho, 45, had worked for the college since 2008. Camacho had been a police officer in native Puerto Rico.

A memorial had been set up in Camacho’s honor at Hunter College Thursday.

“She was kind and compassionate and she loved this country,” said Teresa Nichiporuk, a friend of Camacho’s. “She loved what this county had to offer, and the opportunity she could give her and her son.”

Police identified another victim as Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios, 21; and another as her mother Rosaura Barrios Vasquez, 44.

Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios

Rosaura Hernandez-Barrios was one of at least eight people killed in the East Harlem building explosion on Wednesday, March 12. (Credit: CBS 2/Twitter)

Hernandez-Barrios worked at a Midtown restaurant, and held another part-time job at a Midtown restaurant, and held another part-time job cleaning houses with her friend, Erika Sanchez.

“She was a nice woman,” Sanchez said.

Another victim was identified Thursday night as Alexis Salas, 22. His father-in-law, who earlier identified him as Jordy Alexis Salas, said the college student had last been seen Wednesday morning when he returned from his night job at a Bronx restaurant.

Ortega’s daughter, Jennifer Mendoza, is six months pregnant.

Salas’ wife and his parents, who all lived in the apartment over the Spanish Christian Church at 1644 Park Ave., had all left the apartment just minutes before the blast.

The distraught Mendoza, 20, went to the hospital Wednesday but was resting at her father’s home on Thursday. Ortega said Salas’ father was up all night waiting for any news.

CBS 2 spoke to Salas’ family before he was identified as one of the dead.

“He’s a newlywed – married not even six months,” said Diana Cortez, who also taught Sunday school with Salas.

A seventh victim was identified as George Amadeo, 44.

The bodies of three unidentified people also were found.

A man was pulled from the rubble just after midnight Wednesday, and another man discovered about a half-hour later.

Another victim — a woman — was also found Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, at least three of the injured were children; one, the 15-year-old son of victim Rosaura Barrios Vasquez, was reported in critical condition with burns, broken bones and internal injuries.

“He did verbalize some things when he first came in, but he was quite confused and severely injured,” said Dr. Reynold Trowers with Harlem Hospital.

Most of the other victims’ injuries were minor and included cuts and scrapes.

And others affected by the explosion are still frantically looking for missing loved ones. Searchers have indicated they were still trying to locate at least five people on Thursday.

“It’s definitely a somber, difficult environment,” said Josh Lockwood, regional chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Greater New York. “Many tears have been shed.”

People looking for loved ones are encouraged to call 311 and ask for the Unified Victim Identification System.

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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)