NEW YORK — Emergency workers sifted through debris Saturday from the site of a deadly explosion at two New York City apartment buildings as they worked to reach the basement levels, clearing the way for investigators to search for clues that might reveal what caused the blast.
An uplifting moment from the painstaking recovery effort came as crews pulled a large water-damaged Bible from the rubble of the Spanish Christian Church, which was located in one of the two destroyed buildings. About two dozen people, including clergy members, carried the Bible in a solemn procession near the East Harlem site.
“This was in the depths of the rubble. Somehow God protected it,” said Rick del Rio, a bishop at the Church of God.
The church’s pastor, Thomas Perez, suffered heart palpitations when he saw the Bible, said Letitia James, the city’s public advocate. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital as a precaution, supporters said.
Workers were halfway finished with debris removal by midday. About 1,500 cubic feet of debris had been hauled from the East Harlem site since the explosion, and an equal amount remained at the site, said Daniel Glover, spokesman for the Fire Department of New York.
Truckloads of scattered material will be sifted for any traces of human remains that might not have been found at the site, said city Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano. Although the bodies of all eight people reported missing after Wednesday’s blast have been recovered, the rescue operation was continuing in case others may be buried beneath the rubble, he said.
Arson detectives and fire marshals were waiting to enter the basements to examine meters, check pipes and inspect any possible ignition sources, such as light switches, that might have caused the blast.
More than 60 people were injured in the explosion, and more than 100 others were displaced.
The theory that the explosion was due to a gas leak gained momentum Friday after the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, said underground tests conducted in the hours after the explosion registered high concentrations of natural gas.
The NTSB will conduct its own inquiry after police and fire officials determine what might have caused the blast.
Police have identified six of those who died: Griselde Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who participated in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician; Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the buildings that collapsed; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker.
Mexican officials said another Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.
The name of the eighth person recovered, a woman, hasn’t been released.
After touring a Red Cross shelter where some of the displaced residents have been placed temporarily, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged his support to find suitable temporary or long-term housing options for those displaced.
“It’s our obligation as the city of New York, and I know all New Yorkers feel this way, to stand by them,” he said.
Investigators were trying to determine whether the explosion had anything to do with the city’s aging gas and water mains, some of which were installed in the 1800s. More than 30,000 miles of decades-old, decaying cast-iron pipe still are being used to deliver gas nationwide, according to U.S. Transportation Department estimates.