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Autopsy Results Released For Victims In East Harlem Blast As Investigators Begin Tests At Site

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Autopsy results were released Monday on seven of the eight victims killed in last week’s East Harlem explosion as investigators begin testing and checking gas meters at the site.

The medical examiner said the seven victims died from either blunt trauma or smoke inhalation and classified their deaths as accidents. Results were still pending on the eighth victim.

The eighth victim has been identified by authorities as  34-year-old Mayumi Nakamura, a resident of one of the collapsed buildings.

Meanwhile, most of the rubble has been removed from the site of Wednesday’s blast on Park Avenue and 116th Street.

The massive explosion leveled two buildings and hurled bricks, glass and other debris across the neighborhood.

Monday morning, crews could be seen removing pieces of wreckage from nearby rooftops, WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane reported.

Once the remaining debris is removed, arson detectives, fire marshals and the National Transportation Safety Board plan to pressure test gas pipelines at the site to determine if a gas leak was the cause, as is strongly suspected.

“We will get out to the meters where we need to get to and the piping in the basement to start our investigation,”  Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano said.

Investigators will also examine meters and inspect any possible ignition sources that might have sparked the explosion.

“We want to determine how long a leak may have been there,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.

Sumwalt said a review of records indicated that Con Edison did receive a call about a gas smell at 9:13 a.m. Wednesday and an emergency responder was dispatched two minutes later. Con Ed crews arrived at the scene minutes after the blast.

Sumwalt said in the hours after the explosions, tests in the area registered high concentrations of natural gas.

“In at least five holes, they found the presence of natural gas in the ground and the gas concentration was up to 20 percent in at least five locations,” he said. “It ranged from about 5 percent to 20 percent.”

Sumwalt also said the 8-inch cast iron service pipe under Park Avenue had been installed in 1887, but the age of the pipe would not necessarily be connected to any problems.

The first funeral for one of the victims killed in the blast was held Sunday in Astoria, where friends and family said goodbye to 43-year-old Andreas Panagopoulos.

“It’s just saddening,” said friend Ariel Ben Ezra. “No one deserves to go through that.”

His wife of 12 years, 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,” she said. “He was just special and he’s not here anymore and that hurts.”

Perez says she doesn’t remember any issues with gas leaks in the apartment building before the explosion.

More than 60 people were wounded and more than 100 others were also displaced by the blast. The Office of Emergency Management has been escorting some residents back to their homes to collect what they can.

Getting back to normal has been tough for dozens of residents who were forced from nearby buildings.

“Still sad. Very sad. It’s going to be heartfelt for a while,” Linda Hill told CBS 2’s Andrea Grymes.

Donations poured into Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez’s office on Monday, the generous outpouring of support was coordinated by Aurora Anaya-Cerda, the owner of the nearby bookstore La Casa Azul.

“Within 3 days our basement, our entire backyard, our entire first floor was filled to the brim with everything you see here,” Anaya-Cerda said.

Anyone looking for property that has been missing since the explosion can try to recover it starting Tuesday at the 25th precinct on East 119th Street.

The New York City Office of Emergency Management added residents seeking possessions left behind or pulled out of the rubble are asked to check in at the city Resident Service Center at La Marqueta at 115th street and Park Avenue.

The NTSB is also asking first-hand witnesses to contact the agency by email at witness@ntsb.gov.

Meanwhile, the first lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Jose Vargas, a 20-year-old high school student injured in the blast, WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond reported. Attorney Bob Vilensky has filed a $10 million notice of claim, saying the city failed to ensure people’s safety by neglecting the upkeep of the underground gas lines.

“He’s just on the bus going to school, and the next thing he knows, the windows are shattered, the force of the explosion knocks him out of his seat onto the floor of the bus,” Vilensky told Diamond.

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