Manhattan explosion death toll climbs to 8, several still missing

An excavator clears debris at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York March 13, 2014.(Reuters / Eduardo Munoz)
New York City rescue workers continue combing through the rubble of the two buildings destroyed by a suspected gas explosion, as the death toll rose to eight Thursday evening and investigators search for answers.

Five victims total were found among the ruins on Thursday, while several individuals – at least five, according to the Associated Press – remained missing. The deaths came as a result of an explosion that ultimately toppled two five-story buildings in East Harlem on Wednesday morning, injuring more than 60 people.

Equipped with dogs, floodlights, and thermal imaging gear, rescue crews are roughly halfway through the rubble, though it’s unclear if or when they expect to uncover any more victims.

Although the source of the explosion is still under investigation, police have been operating under the suspicion that it was caused by gas leaks in the area – something they may not be able to confirm until they get through the ruins and investigate the basement area.

New York City emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 13, 2014.(Reuters / Brendan McDermid)

About 15 minutes before the explosion, a neighboring resident had called the Con Ed utility company to report a gas leak, but the blast occurred a few minutes before utility crew arrived at the scene. In addition to a possible gas leak, officials reported that a water main had also burst at the site, though any connection that may have had to the explosion is also unclear at the moment.

"We can only get conclusive evidence when the fire is out, when the rescue is completed, and we really get a chance to look at all the facts," city Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

"We know there was an explosion," he added, according to CNN, "but we don't know everything about the lead-up to it."

Only one resident called Con Ed to report a leak, but after the explosion multiple residents told the AP they smelled gas but did not report it. The company had made gas repairs on the block in May 2013 and January 2011, while two routine leak checks in February found nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, ABC News reported that the fire department had received no complaints regarding gas leaks in the last month.

New York City emergency responders search through the rubble at the site of a building explosion in the Harlem section of New York, March 13, 2014.(Reuters / Eduardo Munoz )

CNN noted that records showed the building had been flagged for several violations in the past, including blocked fire escapes and a lack of smoke detectors, but de Blasio told reporters that, so far, the Wednesday's reported gas leak was "the only indication of danger."

As noted by the AP, complicating the situation is that both the water and gas mains were installed before 1900, since the city’s aging infrastructure can continue to pose safety risks. Just one day before the explosion, a report was published noting that $47 billion in repairs was needed across New York.

"I can't imagine how we can have pipes underground in New York that were put in there in the 1800s," said U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) to the AP. "You know we talk about infrastructure but the whole damn city is falling apart."

For his part, de Blasio said that while it is important to improve the city’s infrastructure, the federal government needs to spend more money investing in the situation nationwide.

"The broader infrastructure challenge is something we address every single day with the resources we have, but that is a tough battle considering we are not getting some of the support that we deserve," he said.