East Harlem service marks anniversary of deadly gas blast

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEW YORK (AP) — The anniversary of a gas explosion that leveled two buildings and killed eight people was marked Thursday by a solemn ceremony attended by Mayor Bill de Blasio and dozens of the victims' family members.

Many of the 50 or so relatives carried a single white rose. Nearby, a fence that encloses the barren, icy lot in East Harlem where the buildings once stood was adorned with plastic and real flowers and pictures of some of those lost.

The blast also injured dozens of people and left many homeless for months.

"Our whole city was rocked by this tragedy," de Blasio said. "For so many families, their world changed in just an instant."

The ceremony — which included schoolchildren singing "Tomorrow" from "Annie" — evoked poignant memories for Angel Vargas of the Bronx, who was there to honor his cousin Carmen Tanco.

"We grew up together. We used to come right here for family gatherings. I knew these hallways well," Vargas said. "She was a wonderful person. We miss her. It's touching to be here. The last thing she said to me was 'Always respect your mother and have a great birthday every year.'"

Another lost loved one, Griselde Camacho, a Hunter College security officer, "had a beautiful smile," said her cousin Nilsa Rios-Aguila.

"She is in a better place," said Rios-Aguila, and those she left behind are "going to continue being strong."

The mayor also sought to embrace the positive on the sad occasion.

"In the midst of tragedy," he said, "New Yorkers showed us something so strong, so resilient, so good."

De Blasio wore a Fire Department of New York jacket to the ceremony. The department was given a much greater role in responding to reports of possible gas leaks because of the blast.

The FDNY was never notified of the gas leak in the building. At the time, residents who smelled gas were often told to call their utility or dial 311, the city's information hotline.

Con Edison officials said they received only one call reporting gas that morning, about 20 minutes before the explosion. Several residents said they made other complaints about the odor, but those calls could not be located by city investigators.

After that, the FDNY encouraged residents to call 911 about gas leaks and odors. Last year, calls were up 68 percent, according to a department spokesman, Frank Dwyer.

The gas pipe that led to the explosion was 127 years old.