NEW YORK (AP) — As workers cleared some of the last of the rubble Sunday from the site of a massive explosion this week in New York’s East Harlem neighborhood, a pair of congregations gathered to mourn — one for its lost church and one for two members who were killed in the blast.
At Bethel Gospel Assembly, tears mixed with the sounds of gospel music as the congregants 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.
"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."
De Blasio also praised the emergency responders who felt the explosion and "ran into the fire, ran into the danger because they knew they might be able to save one life."
A fundraising drive will be launched to help those affected by the explosion, De Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, told the crowd. The money will support a relief plan that includes a victims' assistance fund to go toward funeral arrangements, rent and household expenses. The plan also includes counseling and outreach to immigrant communities.
De Blasio also visited the house of worship being used by members of the Spanish Christian Church, which had been located on the first floor of one of the destroyed buildings. After the three-hour service at the Church of God a few blocks from the blast site, several dozen members of the destroyed church fell into each other's arms amid tears and faint smiles.
For some, it was their 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 church members.
She said it could be years before a new permanent church location will be found.
At the scene of the explosion, there were signs the initial cleanup was ending while the investigation into the cause of the blast could begin. Police barricades were shrunk, and Madison Avenue, a block away, was fully opened to traffic for the first time since Wednesday. Pedestrians were able to walk within sight of the gaping hole where the buildings stood.
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.
Arson detectives and fire marshals had been waiting until the rubble was cleared away to enter the basements of the destroyed buildings to examine meters, check pipes and inspect any possible ignition sources, such as light switches, that might have caused the explosion.
Truckloads of scattered material are being sifted for any traces of human remains. Although the bodies of all eight people reported missing have been recovered, officials have said the rescue operation is continuing in case others may be buried beneath the rubble.
More than 60 people were injured in the explosion and more than 100 others were displaced.
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.
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