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Church Congregations Grieve In Wake Of East Harlem Explosion

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Griselde Camacho, left, and Carmen Tanco were killed in the March 12 East Harlem explosion. (credit: Handouts)

Griselde Camacho, left, and Carmen Tanco were killed in the March 12 East Harlem explosion. (credit: Handouts)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — As workers tried to clear away the last of the rubble that once was two New York City apartment buildings, a pair of congregations gathered to mourn Sunday — one for its lost church and one for two members who lost their lives in the massive explosion.

At Bethel Gospel Assembly, tears mixed with the sounds of gospel music as the church remembered Griselde Camacho and Carmen Tanco, two of the eight people killed in the massive East Harlem explosion that leveled a pair of five-story buildings on Wednesday.

“We feel the void,” said Michelle Robinson, the church’s business administrator. “Both women were very active members.”

PHOTOS: East Harlem Explosion | Explosion Aftermath

Tanco often served as an usher at services and would greet her fellow congregants at the door, Robinson said.

“We are a family and we’re all just missing the big hugs she used to give,” she said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the women “were examples to all of us” because of the faith and spirit they demonstrated. He spoke at a podium with a screen above him displaying photos of the women.

“We will not let you fall,” de Blasio said, speaking at a podium with a screen above him displaying photos of the women. “We are all a family in the end.”

His wife, Chirlane McCray, told the crowd about the launch of a fundraising drive to help those affected by the explosion. The money would support a relief plan that includes a victims’ assistance fund, which would cover costs connected to funeral arrangements, as well as rent and household expenses. The plan also includes counseling and outreach to immigrant communities.

In Astoria, mourners said goodbye to Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, his wife Liseth Perez called him the love of her life.

“He was a great musician. He was a great talker. He was fun, he was smart. He was just special and he’s not here anymore and that hurts,” she told CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez.

Perez said that she didn’t recall a problem with gas leaks in the couple’s East Harlem apartment building but added that she would never forget the helplessness that she experienced knowing that her husband was home at the time of the blast.

“I waited over 24 hours to hear about him. I was hoping that he was one of those people in the hospital. But it obviously wasn’t him,” Perez said.

De Blasio also visited the house of worship where members of the Spanish Christian Church, which had been located on the first floor of one of the destroyed buildings, were spending Sunday. On Saturday a crew at the blast site found a large Bible in the rubble and returned it to the church’s pastor.

“It was a Bible, but it was the original book they tell me, with the founders of the church,” Cassano said. “It was singed, but it meant an awful lot to the pastor because at least we have a remnant of the church.”

Cassano told 1010 WINS’ Gary Baumgarten they presented the Bible to the pastor of Spanish Christian Church, Rev. Thomas Perez, who was so overwhelmed he had to be taken to the hospital for observation.

At the scene of the explosion on Park Avenue at 116th Street, there were signs the initial cleanup was ending while the investigation into the cause of the blast could begin.

The theory that Wednesday’s explosion was due to a gas leak gained momentum Friday after the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, said underground tests conducted in the hours after the explosion registered high concentrations of natural gas. The NTSB will conduct its own inquiry after police and fire officials determine what might have caused the explosion.

City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said Saturday that investigators should be able to get to the gas pipes and meters in the front of the buildings’ basements Sunday, adding, “We’ll be in full swing with the investigation.”

Arson detectives and fire marshals have been waiting to enter the basements to examine meters, check pipes and inspect any possible ignition sources, such as light switches, that might have caused the blast.

Cassano said all but 15 percent of the rubble from the buildings had been cleared away late Saturday.

Truckloads of scattered material will be sifted for any traces of human remains that might not have been found at the site, Cassano said. Although the bodies of all eight people reported missing have been recovered, the rescue operation was continuing in case others may be buried beneath the rubble, he said.

More than 60 people were injured in the explosion, and more than 100 others were displaced.

Police have identified six of those who died: Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who participated in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician; Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the buildings that collapsed; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker.

Mexican officials said another Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.

The name of the eighth person recovered, a woman, hasn’t been released.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the explosion had anything to do with the city’s aging gas and water mains, some of which were installed in the 1800s. More than 30,000 miles of decades-old, decaying cast-iron pipe still are being used to deliver gas nationwide, according to U.S. Transportation Department estimates.

Fire and utility officials said that if the buildings were plagued in recent days or weeks by strong gas odors, as some tenants contend, they have no evidence anyone reported it before Wednesday. An Associated Press analysis of the city’s 311 calls database from Jan. 1, 2013, through Tuesday also found no calls from the buildings about gas.

The blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. Con Edison said it immediately sent workers to check out the report but they got there too late.

Anyone who is looking for property that went missing during the explosion can try to recover it starting on Monday at the 25 precinct on East 119th Street.

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