Rescuers searching rubble from NYC blast

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Firefighters look over the site of a building explosion in New York, Friday, March 14, 2014. 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 the East Harlem section of Manhattan, 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. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Firefighters look over the site of a building explosion in New York, Friday, March 14, 2014. 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 the East Harlem section of Manhattan, 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. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Firefighters look over the site of a building explosion in New York, Friday, March 14, 2014. 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 the East Harlem section of Manhattan, 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. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Firefighters look over the site of a building explosion in New York, Friday, March 14, 2014. 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 the East Harlem section of Manhattan, 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. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

People hold up candles while praying during a vigil for the victims of an explosion, Thursday, March 13, 2014 in New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled four additional bodies from the rubble of two New York City apartment buildings, raising the death toll to at least seven from a gas leak-triggered explosion that reduced the area to a pile of smashed bricks, splinters and mangled metal. The explosion Wednesday morning in Manhattan’s East Harlem injured more than 60 people. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

An excavator removes debris from the site of a building explosion, Thursday, March 13, 2014 in New York. Rescuers working amid gusty winds, cold temperatures and billowing smoke pulled four additional bodies Thursday from the rubble of two New York City apartment buildings, raising the death toll to at least seven from a gas leak-triggered explosion that reduced the area to a pile of smashed bricks, splinters and mangled metal. The explosion Wednesday morning in Manhattan’s East Harlem injured more than 60 people. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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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 were clinging to the possibility Friday 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.

Police said Friday that at least one person remained 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.

“We are still in a search and rescue mode,” a fire department spokesman said.

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

Workers continued to remove debris at the site on Friday, and hoped to make it down to the first floor by Saturday, then move on to the basement.

“This is catastrophic. It’s devastating and we’ve had, obviously, a loss of life. So, it is very hard to be here. But it’s part of our job to find out what happened so that we can keep it from happening again,” said National Transportation Safety Board team member Robert Sumwalt, who was at the scene early Friday.

About a dozen firefighters picked through charred wood and bits of metal in frigid conditions, seeking human remains or anything that could help the investigation. For the first time since the explosion, smoke finally stopped rising from the debris but the smell was still apparent a block away.

More than 60 people were injured. Investigators were trying 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.

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, Sumwalt said Thursday. They had not been torn from the ground.

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.

Sumwalt 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

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