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Body of SUNY Buffalo State graduate found in blast wreckage

NEW YORK - Rescue workers recovered the body Sunday of SUNY Buffalo State graduate Nicholas Figueroa in the wreckage of the explosion and fire that happened last week in the East Village, police said.

A second body was also recovered but had not been identified.

Two men, including Figueroa, 23, had been missing since Thursday afternoon when a fire started in a first-floor restaurant, Sushi Park, shortly before an explosion destroyed three buildings and injured 22 people.

Figueroa, a 2014 SUNY Buffalo State graduate, had been on a lunch date at Sushi Park; Moises Ismael Locón Yac, 27, the other missing man, was a busboy there. By 6 p.m. Sunday, the fire was placed under control.

As the discovery of the first body became known around 1 p.m. Sunday, a brother of Figueroa cried out from the edge of the rubble.

“That doesn’t mean he’s dead; that doesn’t mean he’s our brother,” the man, Neal Figueroa, said. “Nicholas, come home; we’re here for you!”

He began throwing white roses into the intersection and thanking firefighters for working at the scene.

Flanked by firefighters and rescue workers at the blast site about 7 p.m. Sunday, Daniel A. Nigro, the fire commissioner, said he believed the two bodies were those of the missing men.

“Those were the two people who had been reported missing,” Nigro said. “They were found approximately 20 feet from one another. The mechanics of how they got there we do not know.”

The investigation into the blast and collapse is continuing, he said.

There is a “very, very slight chance that there will be another victim,” he said. “We continue the search although there are no other missing persons.”

The Fire Department has yet to reach the cellar level where the gas piping is, with about 1,000 cubic yards of debris left to remove.

Officials said the fire was most likely set off by a gas explosion. The explosion blew off the facade of the building before spreading to four neighboring ones. Three of the buildings – 119, 121 and 123 Second Ave.–- were reduced to rubble.

Emergency workers had spent Sunday combing through piles of debris. As they have for days, cranes shifted the heaps of material from the explosion site onto the street, where firefighters scoured through it using rakes, hammers and axes. Dump trucks carted away the sifted wreckage.

City officials said they suspected that leaking natural gas was the source of the explosion and fire. The Manhattan district attorney’s office and the city’s Department of Investigation are among the agencies looking into the explosion.

Along the surrounding streets Sunday, there were signs of both gratitude and exhaustion in the busy Manhattan neighborhood that has found itself transformed into an emergency recovery zone since Thursday.

In a room capped by arched wood and lighted by sunlight through stained glass, a dozen firefighters were greeted with a standing ovation Sunday morning at Middle Collegiate Church, a building of gray stone that stands just across Second Avenue at Seventh Street from where the buildings fell.

“The great fire department of New York and the,” said the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis said, being interrupted by applause, “... great NYPD, how you rallied, how you saved our family, how you saved our community, how your quick work saved so many lives, we’re honored to have you in this place.”

The parishioners who filled every pew in the church for the Palm Sunday service lifted their hands in the air. The firefighters waved in acknowledgment.

“We’re going to stand, and we’re all going to give you a blessing, but we’ll clap first,” Lewis said. “May God bless and keep you. May you be surrounded by angels.”

Neighborhood restaurants near the explosion site were also showing signs of recovery Sunday as visitors began to return to the area. But the disaster site has also drawn gawkers, some of whom have been clustering at the barricades around the site taking selfies. Social media ignited with a backlash over the weekend, with some calling those shots ghoulish.

Signs posted Sunday on the door of an apartment on Seventh Street, just around the corner from the site of the fire, showed some residents had had enough.

“This is a tragedy, not a tourist attraction. Show some respect,” one read.