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New York gas blast death toll rises to eight

Firefighters remove debris from the smoking site of an explosion in East Harlem on March 13, 2014 in New York City
Firefighters remove debris from the smoking site of an explosion in East Harlem on March 13, 2014 in New York City

Rescuers scouring the rubble of two Manhattan apartment buildings leveled in a gas explosion found the body of an eighth victim, nearly 36 hours after the disaster.

An unspecified number of people remain missing after Wednesday's building collapse in East Harlem, which sparked inevitable reminders for some New Yorkers of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 that brought down the Twin Towers.

The New York Police Department told AFP that five women and three men were killed, and 68 others injured.

Earlier Thursday, before the eighth death was announced, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said he hoped survivors might still be found.

He also praised the "exemplary job" of the 100 rescue personnel contending with below freezing temperatures and strong winds that whipped up smoldering pockets of fire in the wreckage.

"We are continuing rescue operations hoping to find others still alive," he said. "Let me caution everyone here these rescue operations will continue for an open-ended period of time."

Some witnesses said the blast felt like an earthquake, describing how they were knocked to the floor or telephoned panicked loved ones.

Police officers, wearing protective face masks, stand near the site of an explosion and building collapse in East Harlem on March 13, 2014 in New York City
Police officers, wearing protective face masks, stand near the site of an explosion and building collapse in East Harlem on March 13, 2014 in New York City

Around 15 minutes before the explosion, energy company Con Edison received a call from an adjoining building alerting maintenance staff to the smell of gas.

Where the apartment buildings once stood were piles of twisted metal, thick white smoke and dusty rubble -- a scene of utter devastation that witnesses likened to a war zone.

The Mexican foreign ministry said two Mexican women were among the dead, and one man was seriously injured.

A Mexican diplomat in New York told AFP that several Mexican nationals were still missing.

Authorities evacuated 89 apartments and three businesses in seven surrounding buildings owing to the fire, and because gas and heat have been turned off in the area, de Blasio said.

A total of 66 people, including 14 families with children, were being housed temporarily with the Salvation Army, he added.

It was the first deadly disaster of its kind to strike the city of eight million since de Blasio took office in January.

Jazzmen Arzuaga, 30, said she was at work when her wife rang to tell her what had happened.

"She called me and told me 'Oh my God, you need to come home now, it's like World War II, people are dying, there was an explosion.' I just literally ran," she said Wednesday.

The couple lives across the street from the blast site.

Arzuaga's wife Jay Virgo, also 30, said she was lying in bed when the blast threw her to the floor.

"There was glass everywhere, huge pieces of glass. It just looked crazy," she said.