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New York - New York City officials announced efforts on Friday to house dozens of families that were displaced after an explosion collapsed two buildings in East Harlem, killing eight people.
Two days after the blast, which also injured roughly 60 people, workers continued their recovery mission, using sonar equipment to search voids and sifting through the tangle of twisted metal and concrete still at the site.
Nearly 75 percent of the debris has been removed, Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano said at a news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio. But Cassano said investigators had yet to reach the basement in one of the buildings, which could be critical in determining the cause of the gas leak that led to the blast.
Cassano said emergency personnel expected to reach the basement and clear it of water and other debris by Saturday afternoon, at which point the investigation would be the primary focus.
De Blasio said the most immediate challenge was finding shelter for at least 55 families, including over 50 children, who either lived in the buildings or have not been able to return to neighboring buildings because the heat and power were cut off.
Many families spent the first two nights after the explosion at a Red Cross shelter at a Salvation Army building, which de Blasio toured before speaking to reporters.
Men, women and children were bunked together in a large gymnasium. Military-style cots were unfolded and clustered into family groups.
Marisol Gonzalez, 49, who lives nearby and was staying at the shelter, said the assistance could not come soon enough. "Emotionally, this destroys someone," Gonzalez said.
Some residents were allowed to return to their homes briefly Friday to retrieve personal items and pets.
De Blasio said residents might not be able to move back into their homes for days, if not considerably longer. "There is a constant effort being made to determine when people can go back into their buildings if their buildings are still there," he said.
The city was providing several options for the families, he said, including 50 apartments controlled by Homeless Services, which are in private buildings and run by nonprofit organizations. The city is also working with the YMCA to house single residents.
For those who will be displaced for a longer period of time, de Blasio said, the Real Estate Board of New York will make at least 34 apartments on the East Side available for up to three months.
City officials were also working with the New York state Association for Affordable Housing to provide both temporary and permanent apartments.
"This means that whatever a families need as a result of this crisis, we have an option for them," the mayor said.
Even as the city worked to find them homes, some families were getting confirmation that those they thought were missing had been killed.
Those killed were identified by relatives and Mexican officials as Griselde Camacho, 44; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43; Carmen Tanco, 67; and a mother and daughter, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, and Rosaura Hernandez Barrios, 21. On Friday, the police said that George Ameado, 44, and Alexis Salas, 22, were among the fatalities.
Hundreds of firefighters, construction workers and emergency personnel have spent the last three days in one of the most intense search and rescue operations in recent years.
For hours after the blast, they had to battle a fire before they could begin to look for survivors. After the fire was largely under control, they also had to contend with freezing temperatures, and two exterior walls from one of the buildings that remained precariously standing.
With the Buildings Department helping monitor their stability, the walls were taken down and cleared from the site.
Cassano said all the debris was being taken to a parking lot on Randalls Island in case forensic teams needed to go through it.
But officials seemed to indicate that the basement was where they would find their answers.
"We still need to get to the basement to try and find the cause and origin," Cassano said.