Anniversary of Harlem gas explosion that killed 8 marked on site

HARLEM, N.Y. (WABC) -- A ceremony has been held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of an East Harlem gas explosion that leveled two buildings and killed eight people.


Mayor Bill de Blasio arrived Thursday with about 50 of the victims' family members. Many carried a single white rose. The blast also injured dozens of people. De Blasio said the worlds of many families were changed in "an instant."

The ceremony included children singing "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie."

Angel Vargas of the Bronx said his cousin, Carmen Tanco, was "a wonderful person." The dental assistant participated in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean.

Vargas recalls the last thing she said to him: "Always respect your mother and have a great birthday every year."


While there's been no formal ruling on the cause of the explosion, officials suspect a leak in an aging gas main.

It was just after 9:30 a.m. when the peace of a routine Wednesday morning shattered. Eileen Lapuma, who lived in the neighborhood at the time, said it was like "an earthquake, maybe a bomb ...I was terrified."

She lived right next door to the explosion with her mother and 7-year old son. Like many others, they lost everything and were homeless for about a month before returning to the building.


"When the community talks about it, you can see the pain, the trauma, the fear," she said this week.

Her story is one of hundreds left in the clouds of dust and shock after a suspected gas leak triggered the violent explosion. Eight died and countless others were displaced.

"I just have to have trust and faith that we're going to be OK -- as long as we have that faith, I'm going to go back home," said Lapuma

Pura Cruz, a local social worker, has aided many of the victims. "A lot of them are just living with that emptiness, trying to make it day to day," she said.


Cruz said many of the impacted residents scattered, but then moved back to the neighborhood where the now-empty lot along with a makeshift memorial are everyday reminders of the tragedy. "Many of them don't pass by here, they avoid it as much as they can," she said.

The explosion has led to a growing mountain of claims and lawsuits against the city, Con Ed and the building's owner. Lapuma, whose own lawsuit will be filed next week, said the tragedy continues to rattle her autistic son, who remains afraid of loud noises and being alone.

"He used to be a very confident boy and independent and now he's afraid and scared," said Lapuma.

Robert Vilensky, her attorney, said that Con Ed should have fixed the pipes long before the explosion. "Con Ed was aware of old these pipes were," he said.

But Michael Clendenin, a spokesman for Con Ed, said the company does work to prevent such incidents. "We're doing everything we can right now to prevent something like that from happening again."


Con Ed has increased patrolling of its gas lines and worked with the New York City Fire Department to improve response time to leaks. More than 120 impacted residents and businesses have received payouts from the utility.

But money can't begin to replace what was lost here a year ago, Cruz said.

"There was a quality of a community within the building, and they were family and treated each other like family. That's missing here ...," she said.

A final report is due out on the explosion later this year. There are still no plans for future of the site.

Raw video from the day of the explosion and its aftermath:

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