EAST HARLEM — The death toll of the Park Avenue gas explosion rose to eight on Thursday as emergency workers found additional victims in the still-smoldering rubble of two flattened buildings.
High winds reignited the embers, forcing FDNY crews to keep working to put out the blaze as they dig through the rubble, officials said.
"We are continuing rescue operations, hoping to find others still alive," Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters at a Thursday afternoon briefing, adding that crews were working around the clock.
De Blasio confirmed that Griselde Camacho, a beloved Hunter College security guard, and Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental assistant, were among those killed by the blast that leveled 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The victims included Rosaura Hernandez, 21, a promising chef, and Andreas Panagopoulos, 44, a musician, who both lived in 1644 Park Ave, sources said.
Two other men and a woman who have not been identified were pulled from the rubble overnight and early Thursday, fire officials said.
An unknown number of victims remained missing or unaccounted for, de Blasio said, adding that he didn't want to say how many people were missing until all search efforts were complete.
A pastor of the Spanish Christian Church, which was located at the base of 1644 Park. Ave, and whose owner is also the owner of the demolished building, told reporters at a vigil Thursday that at least three families of parishioners were among the dead.
"We don't know who is missing or who is in the hospital," said Santos Mercado, "We are doing anything we can to help the families."
De Blasio said that rescue crews will continue to search for the missing, and encouraged those in search of relatives to call 311 and ask for the Unified Victims Identification System. He emphazized that the phone number was available to all New Yorkers, and that people should not be concerned about immigration status when they call.
Air quality remained an issue Thursday as the thick smoke and dust kicked up by high winds prompted emergency responders and locals to cover their faces with masks or shirts.
Officials encouraged those in the area to stay indoors and keep their windows closed, but added that there was no indication of asbestos in the air at this time. Environmental Protection officials were on scene taking air quality samples, de Blasio said.
Investigators haven't yet been able to determine the cause of the blast becuase they need access to the basement, FDNY Commisioner Sal Cassano said. He added that it was too soon to theorize about potential causes.
Other than a call about 15 minutes before the blast, Con Ed officials said they had only had two reports of gas smells in the area in the past three years — one in May and another in 2011.
Sources said investigators are looking into the theory believe that a large amount of gas accumulated in a confined space — likely inside the Spanish Christian Church on the ground floor and basement of 1644 Park Ave. — which suddenly ignited. Sources said they believe 1644 Park Avenue was the site of the initial blast because of the complete damage, compared to the partial damage at 1646.
Officials at the church said they didn't smell gas on Tuesday, sources said.
Investigators were also unwilling to discuss what role, if any, was played by a water main break and possible sinkhole beneath the gas pipe. Sources said they do not believe the sinkhole caused the blast.
Meanwhile, friends and relatives looking for information about missing people came to the Red Cross Shelter and deluged 311 with questions about their missing loved ones.
There were 200 callers to 311 looking for missing people as of Thursday afternoon, officials said.
Anyone looking for information is encouraged to call 311 or (212) 639-9675, officials said.
Samanta Martinez, 18, visited the blast site Thursday morning after frantically trying to contact her friend, 17-year-old Mark Anthony Plaza, who lived on the second floor of one the buildings and hasn't been heard from since.
'I've been trying to talk to him, but there's no way for me to get through to him," Martinez said.
"I'm really worried that it could've been him. There's that thought in the back of my mind. I don't know how I'd make it through the rest of this year if it was him," she added.