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SUNY Buffalo State grad missing after blast in New York City

A recent SUNY Buffalo State college graduate is one of two people unaccounted for after an explosion and a blaze reduced three buildings in Lower Manhattan to rubble Thursday.

Nicholas Figueroa, 23, was believed to have been on a lunchtime date at a sushi restaurant when it was ripped apart by the blast, according to the New York Times. Buffalo State officials confirmed to The Buffalo News that Figueroa graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He enrolled at the college in 2010.

The explosion sparked an inferno that engulfed four neighboring buildings, with residents scrambling down fire escapes to safety and others helped by bystanders in daring rescues. The fire burned into the night, sending clouds of smoke billowing into the sky, while families searched for people who might be missing.

Figueroa’s family searched through the night hoping to find him, the Times reported.

“I don’t know what to do,” Figueroa’s brother Tyler, 19, said Friday outside of a makeshift Red Cross center in the East Village. “We’re just praying that they find him.”

Figueroa had gone to the Sushi Park restaurant for a lunchtime date and has not been heard from since, according to his family.

His date, they said, was being treated for her injuries at Bellevue Hospital Center. She told her family that they were there when the place exploded and was swallowed by flames.

The family fanned out across Manhattan on Thursday afternoon to search for Nicholas. Tyler walked to a nearby hospital while his father, also named Nicholas Figueroa, and a cousin sought the help of the police. But there was no trace of him.

At the end of a long night of searching, his weary parents returned to their home on the Upper East Side early Friday, hopeful that their son might have returned while they were away. If not, they planned to return to the site of the blast later.

“My father is not stable, because he’s crying so much,” Tyler Figueroa said. “The police said that they’re looking into it, but we just want to know how this could’ve happened.”

The only thing the family knows for sure is that Nicholas had just paid his bill for lunch and was likely about to leave.

A bank statement they accessed shows that he used a debit card to pay $13.04 to Sushi Park.

The police say a second man, a busboy, was also missing.

James Long, a spokesman for the Fire Department, cautioned that the initial reports of the missing persons could change.

At least 19 people were taken to area hospitals for injuries, and four remained in critical condition. Those with the most serious injuries, officials said, seemed to have been hurt during the initial blast.

The investigation into the explosion’s cause was focusing on plumbing and gas work being done at the restaurant.

The contractor working on the job, Dilber Kukic, 39, was injured in the blast, according to the authorities.

Workers from the utility Consolidated Edison had visited the location just an hour before the explosion and found the work being done there to be deficient.

Kukic is a general contractor at the Bronx firm Neighborhood Construction.

In February, he was charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office with bribing an undercover investigator posing as a housing inspector.

Prosecutors said he paid the undercover agent $600 in cash to dismiss violations at two properties he owned on West 173rd Street in Manhattan.

He has pleaded not guilty, and the case is continuing.

Kukic could not be reached to comment, but in an interview with DNAinfo.com on Thursday night, he said he had completed his work at the site six months ago and never did any work in the basement. He said he was in the neighborhood by chance.

“I just happened to be in the area,” he said. “We smell gas in the basement. We walk down. We opened the door and, explosion.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said.

As a drizzly gray dawn broke on the explosion site Friday, firefighters high up on a crane continued to blast a jet of water down onto the rubble of the collapsed buildings.

More than 50 firefighters were on the scene, with Con Edison workers milling around the blocked-off avenue, waiting for the all clear to begin searching.

At the time of the explosion, Sushi Park was engaaged in its lunch service, with diners taking advantage of a half-price deal.

Witnesses described how the powerful explosion tore through the restaurant, saying that several minutes elapsed before the fire swept through the restaurant building first and then several neighboring buildings. During the brief window of time between the explosion and the spread of the fire, at least a dozen people escaped or were helped to safety.

“It was the loudest and most intense explosion I have ever heard,” said Tony Klinger, who had seen people in the restaurant just before the blast. “I thought it might be a bomb, some kind of terrorist attack. The whole inside of the storefront, of the restaurant, was outside on the sidewalk where I had just walked.”

The New York Times and News Staff Reporter Jay Tokasz contributed to this article.