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Rescuers continue searching rubble from NYC blast

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A firefighter applies water to rubble a day after a gas leak-triggered explosion, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in East Harlem, New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two apartment buildings that collapsed Wednesday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A firefighter applies water to rubble a day after a gas leak-triggered explosion, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in East Harlem, New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two apartment buildings that collapsed Wednesday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Debris is removed from a mound of rubble a day after a gas leak-triggered explosion, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in East Harlem, New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two apartment buildings that collapsed Wednesday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, second from right, listens to a first responder near the site of a gas leak-triggered explosion in East Harlem, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two apartment buildings that collapsed Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Daily News, Marcus Santos, Pool)

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, right, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, second from left, tour near the site of a gas leak-triggered explosion in East Harlem, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two apartment buildings that collapsed Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Daily News, Marcus Santos, Pool)

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, right front, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, right back, listen to first responders near the site of a gas leak-triggered explosion in East Harlem, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two apartment buildings that collapsed Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Daily News, Marcus Santos, Pool)

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NEW YORK (AP) — Using sound devices to probe for voices and telescopic cameras to peer into small spaces, workers searching a pile of rubble from a gas explosion in New York City continued to treat it as a rescue operation, holding onto the possibility of finding survivors from a blast that brought down two apartment buildings and killed at least eight people.

“We have to think of survivors and work in that way, with hope,” said Fire Department of New York Chief Edward Kilduff.

The search work was slow going, with 40 percent to 50 percent of the debris removed by Thursday evening. Kilduff said a fire was still burning, and the force of the explosion collapsed and pancaked layers of floors. A back wall was still freestanding and posed a collapse hazard.

Workers planned a full day removing debris at the site on Friday, and hoped to make it down to the first floor by Saturday then move on to the basement.

It’s meticulous work. About a dozen firefighters picked through charred wood and bits of metal early Friday, seeking human remains or anything that could help the investigation. Smoke was still rising from the debris, the smell apparent even a block away.

At least five people were unaccounted for after the deafening blast Wednesday morning destroyed two five-story East Harlem apartment buildings at Park Avenue and 116th Street that were served by an 1887 cast-iron gas main. More than 60 people were injured. Investigators tried to pinpoint the leak and determine whether it had anything to do with the city’s aging gas and water mains, some from the 1800s.

Fire and utility officials said that if the buildings were plagued in recent days or weeks by strong gas odors, as some tenants contended, they have no evidence anyone reported it before Wednesday.

National Transportation Safety Board team member Robert Sumwalt said the gas main and distribution pipe under the street had been examined in a crater and were found to be intact, with no obvious punctures or ruptures. They had not been torn from the ground, he said.

However, he said NTSB investigators had been unable to conduct a fuller examination because of the rescue effort underway, and it was unclear whether the leak came from inside or outside the buildings.

He said there had also been a water main break at the site, but it was unknown if that contributed to the gas explosion or was caused by it. The water main was installed in 1897, according to the city.

The NTSB investigates pipeline accidents in addition to transportation disasters.

Authorities also hoped to reach the basement — still buried under rubble — to examine heating units, meters and other equipment that might hold clues to the blast, fire department Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “We can only get conclusive evidence when the fire is out, when the rescue is completed, and we really get a chance to look at all the facts.”

Aging infrastructure — crumbling bridges, highways, water mains and gas lines — has become a major concern in recent years, especially in older cities in the Northeast, and has been blamed for explosions, floods and other accidents.

“We know this is a fundamental challenge for New York City and any older city,” de Blasio said. But he said the federal government needs to provide more aid to cities to deal with the problem.

As cold, stiff winds blew across the still-smoldering debris, construction equipment with iron jaws picked up the rubble, first depositing it on the pavement, then hoisting it onto trucks that hauled it away. Clouds of thick smoke swirled over Park Avenue.

The mayor told firefighters carrying grappling hooks and other equipment, “I can only imagine, knowing that at any moment you might

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