By Leanne Italie And Verena Dobnik
NEW YORK — 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.”
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.
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.
After the three-hour service at the Church of God a few blocks from the blast site, several dozen members of the destroyed church, including young families with children, fell into each other’s arms amid tears and faint smiles.
For some, it was the first encounter since Wednesday’s catastrophe.
“We don’t know where we will worship, we don’t know what we’ll do,” said Carmen Vargas Rosa, who led a meeting of Spanish Christian Church members.
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 blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, said Friday that underground tests conducted in the hours after the explosion registered high concentrations of natural gas.
City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said 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.
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.