Leveled New York City Church, Beacon Of Hope For The Community, To Rebuild From The Ashes

The Spanish Christian Church once stood as a beacon of hope for a growing Hispanic community in East Harlem, N.Y., known as the birth place of salsa music and among Latinos by its famous moniker, El Barrio.

Now that evangelical church, which recently celebrated its 80th anniversary last fall, lays in ruins following a gas explosion Wednesday morning that destroyed two five story apartment buildings, including the church, and killed at least eight people and injuring more than 60 others. Police on Friday were still searching for survivors, and at least one person is still unaccounted for.

Not only is the church gone, but at least five of its parishioners died in the explosion.

Yet, religious leaders and community members have vowed to rebuild a church that provided shelter to the homeless, food to the poor and spirituality to anyone seeking it.

Leigh Piatt-Gonzalez, a former assistant pastor at the church told the New York Daily News “this was a little church that had an amazing impact.”

But church members insist that they are not going anywhere, even though the building they were in was destroyed.

"The building is no longer there but we are still here and we are going to keep on going," the church’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Perez, told USA Today.

Six apartments above the church that were also demolished housed about 20 people, all of whom were members of the evangelical church, according to the Huffington Post.

But the effort to help the church rebound, both structurally and spiritually, is growing.

The Rev. William Devlin, a pastor of the Infinity Church in the South Bronx, is leading efforts to raise funds to try and rebuild the church he said has been "very active in meeting the needs of the community."

"Now they’re in the opposite position. They’re in a place for need," Devlin told the New York Daily News.

Perez told the News he’s optimistic the church will make a comeback.

“I have no words to explain how I feel, but I know that everything is in God’s hands,” the church's Rev. Thomas Perez on Thursday. “I can’t explain it. I’m the pastor and they were my children . . . We’re praying now just for the Lord to keep us together.”

About 40 percent to 50 percent of the debris was removed from the site as of Thursday evening but the search work was slow going.

Investigators were trying to pinpoint the leak and determine whether it had anything to do with the city's aging gas and water mains, some from the 1800's.

After the disaster, a number of neighborhood residents said they smelled gas on Tuesday but didn't report it. A tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, Ruben Borrero, said that residents had complained to the landlord about the gas odors on Tuesday and that fire officials were also called a few weeks ago.

But Cassano and McAvoy said that before Wednesday, the fire department and Con Ed had received no complaints in the last 30 days about a gas leak in the area.

Police identified six of the dead: Griselde Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who took part in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician; Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the buildings that collapsed; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker.

Mexican officials said a Mexican woman, Rosaura Barrios Vazquez, 43, was among those killed.

The body of unidentified eighth person was pulled from the rubble on Thursday.

At least three of the injured were children. One, a 15-year-old boy, was reported in critical condition with burns, broken bones and internal injuries.

The blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. The Con Edison utility said it immediately sent workers to check out the report, but they got there too late.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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