After 3 Days of Prayers in East Harlem, a Treasure is Found in the Ashes
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ and NATE SCHWEBERMARCH 15, 2014
The Rev. Vernon Williams held a Bible belonging to the Spanish Christian Church that was recovered from debris in East Harlem. Credit Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Over three grim and grueling days of digging through the rubble of two East Harlem buildings annihilated in a gas explosion, rescue workers uncovered eight bodies and a catalog of ruined lives. On Saturday, though, they also discovered a small, but precious treasure.
Buried among the scorched debris, firefighters found a Bible belonging to the Spanish Christian Church, which occupied the basement and ground floor in 1644 Park Avenue, one of the buildings destroyed. Though dust-covered and crumpled, the Bible was largely intact, a gold inscription on its spine reading “Santa Biblia.”
When firefighters presented the Bible, the church’s 83-year-old pastor, the Rev. Thomas Perez, who had often stood vigil over the blast site these past days, was overcome. Mr. Perez, who arrived near the site to lead a small prayer gathering, experienced chest pains, witnesses said, and was taken away by an ambulance.
In a news conference, Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano of the Fire Department said that Mr. Perez was recovering at Lenox Hill Hospital.
“We were very proud to get that back for him,” Mr. Cassano said, referring to the Bible.
For Mr. Perez, who has led the church for 56 years, the grief has been overwhelming.
Many of the victims were members of his congregation who lived in apartments above the church. That building and the one next door at 1646 Park Avenue were leveled in the explosion on Wednesday.
The precise cause of the blast remains unknown, though officials are focusing on the possibility of a faulty or broken gas main beneath Park Avenue.
Investigators have said that underground air samples taken in the vicinity of the blast site a few hours after the explosion contained dangerous levels of methane gas, which, they said, is not normally found in New York City soil.
Emergency crews have yet to zero in on the epicenter of the explosion, though the pattern of debris and the angle of collapse have offered clues. Investigators are focusing on the basement of 1644 Park Avenue, which appears to have come down vertically, with each floor pancaking on top of the others, investigators have said.
The collapse of 1646 Park Avenue was less uniform. The floors collapsed like dominoes, investigators said, one side falling faster than the other.
At the blast site on Saturday, dozens of firefighters in black and yellow protective uniforms swarmed around a backhoe. No longer using a claw for lifting twisted metal, the backhoe used a bucket to scoop tan dirt into dump trucks.
Over 200 rescue workers, using both heavy machinery and their hands, have removed 1,500 cubic feet of debris from the site. It is being collected in a parking lot on Randalls Island, where it will be available to forensic teams.
Mr. Cassano said he expected crews to remove the last of the debris on Sunday, allowing investigators to gain access to the pipes and meters in the front of the basement. “It’s actually going very smoothly,” he said of the progress.
The excavation has shifted from what had been primarily a search and rescue mission.
Officials say they have identified eight people who died in the blast, though it is still possible other victims could be found.
The Police Department said the only known victim not yet publicly named was a 34-year-old woman. The authorities were trying to reach the woman’s family in Japan before releasing her name.
The city said it would find housing for at least 55 families, including 50 children, who were displaced by the explosion. On Friday evening, the city began moving some of them from a Red Cross shelter near the site.
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Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Saturday that “several dozen families” still had not registered for city assistance with housing and other needs.
Permanent housing will be available for some tenants of the destroyed buildings, Mr. de Blasio has said, but he cautioned that it could be days before residents of neighboring buildings could return. Some of those displaced said they were still too traumatized to even think about returning to their apartments.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to go back, after what we went through,” said Lucilla Reyes, 57, who lives in 1652 Park Avenue. “Now every little noise I hear, I jump. It’s not going to be easy.”
Kat Ferrara, 64, a retired pet nutritionist who lived in a second-floor apartment in 1652 Park Avenue, said that though she had not been able to get back into her building to gather clothing or other belongings, she was grateful.
“You think about what happened to those people and you can’t help but believe that we’re still here by the grace of God,” she said.
Near the blast site, the planned prayer gathering went on after Mr. Perez was taken away in the ambulance. The Rev. Vernon Williams, who is not a member of the Spanish Christian Church but participated in the gathering, held the Bible in his hands. “The word is preserved,” he shouted.