NEW YORK—A grieving neighborhood met for prayer near the still-smoking ruins of two buildings in East Harlem Thursday morning, gathering around the pastor of Spanish Christian Church which was destroyed in Wednesday’s explosion. This morning, police announced the death toll had risen to 7, as first responders discovered bodies in the rubble. More than 60 people were injured, and five residents remain missing. The blast leveled two five-story buildings.
More than a dozen pastors from neighborhood churches gathered with victims’ family members in a room across the street from the destroyed buildings and prayed. The family members sobbed, paralyzed. They stayed behind in the room while the pastors marched out, arm in arm to pray in the street. Everyone wore face masks, as the frigid air was still thick with smoke and the pungent smell of the explosion. The ministers helped the elderly pastor of Spanish Christian Church, Thomas Perez, secure his face mask. Perez said little, beyond a few comments in Spanish.
“We trust that you will bring comfort and healing Lord,” prayed Pastor Troy DeCohen of Mount Vernon Heights Congregational Church. “The Bible teaches us that to be absent in the body is to be present with The Lord.” His fellow pastors called out, “Yes, Jesus!” and “Amen, amen.”
Three blocks from the blast sits Bethel Gospel Assembly, which lost three longtime members in the explosion. Two of the victims from Bethel Gospel have been identified: Carmen Tanco, 67, and Griselde Comacho, 44. Pastor Gordon Williams from Bethel Gospel stood alongside Perez. The church has about 1,500 members, according to Williams, and has a crisis center that it will open for anyone in the neighborhood, one area of New York that is bursting with churches.
“We deal with tragedy a lot,” Williams said. “We offer ourselves as responders among the first responders.” Aside from dealing with neighborhood tragedies related to drug addiction and homelessness, his church sent teams to Haiti six times after the 2010 earthquake.
Williams said Tanco, a dental hygienist, had gone on multiple medical missions trips with the church. They planned to travel to Albania and the Dominican Republic this year, and he said she was excited to go.
“For her to save and make that kind of commitment is a true investment on her part,” he said. Comacho was a security officer at Hunter College.
Williams said faith-based groups and churches are partnering to see what needs exist. At least one family in his church needs housing.
“It’s like a whirlwind,” he said. “It just happened. We’re trying to figure out burials. … It’s not just our people. There’s all kind of peripheral pain.”
Rev. Joel Gibson from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies met with the pastors Thursday morning.
“We just want to wait and see what people need,” he told me. “Hopefully between the civic institutions and the faith-based institutions we can let people know there’s support.”
Authorities estimated the blast left 100 homeless as surrounding buildings were sealed off or had their windows blown out. The city vacated 89 apartment units and seven buildings in the area. More than 60 residents slept at the nearby Salvation Army shelter last night, just as wind chills dropped to zero degrees. The city is now setting up emergency services at the Salvation Army.
Officials attribute the blast to a gas leak, but the details remain unclear. First responders still haven’t found the source of the explosion. Neither building had any major violations listed on city building records. A city water main broke by the buildings on Wednesday, but it’s not clear whether that may have caused the gas leak or if it occurred after the explosion.
“There are still a lot of unknowns here,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. City officials said they hadn’t received any complaints about gas smells in the last 30 days in the area, and officials with Con Edison, the utility company, said going back three years it only received two complaints on the block, one in 2011 and on in 2013. Both times, crews repaired the leaks.
De Blasio said rescue operations “will continue for an open-ended period of time,” in the hope of finding people alive.