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Gas line to East Village restaurant had been illegally tapped (+video)

Months before an explosion and fire that leveled three apartment buildings in Manhattan's East Village a gas crew found multiple leaks in a line that had been illegally tapped at a restaurant in one of the buildings.

More than seven months before an explosion and fire leveled three apartment buildings in Manhattan's East Village, utility workers discovered that the gas line to a restaurant in one of them had been illegally tapped, creating a hazardous situation, according to the company.

On Aug. 6, a meter reader at the restaurant detected the smell of gas and reported it, said Consolidated Edison spokesman Allan Drury. A gas crew dispatched to the site found multiple leaks in a gas line that had been tapped, Drury said, adding that the restaurant was the only customer in the building authorized to receive gas.

The discovery led Con Edison to shut down gas service to the building for about 10 days while the building owner made repairs. Gas service was restored after the utility deemed it safe, Drury said.

City officials suspect that leaking natural gas was the source of Thursday's explosion and fire, which sparked a raging blaze that took hundreds of firefighters to quell. De Blasio visited a firehouse Saturday to thank some of them.

Meanwhile, emergency workers painstakingly looked for signs of two missing people, scooping through piles of loose brick, wood and debris with their hands and using dogs to search the rubble. Authorities acknowledged the chances of finding either person alive were slim.

Officials estimated it could take a week of 24-hour-a-day work to sift through the heap. "It's going to be slow and arduous," Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

Detectives issued posters seeking information on the whereabouts of the men believed to have been in the sushi restaurant on the ground floor of one of the collapsed buildings: 26-year-old Moises Lucon, who worked at the restaurant, and 23-year-old Nicholas Figueroa, a bowling alley worker who had been there on a date.

Their families showed photos of their loved ones and asked for help.

"We have just been walking down the streets, one by one," brother Zacarias Lucon told the Daily News of New York. "We are just so exhausted and upset."

Figueroa's relatives said they were holding out hope.

"My brother is strong," Neal Figueroa told reporters. "Even if he is still in the rubble, I know he would still be in a predicament to get himself out, and so I'm just praying for that."

But hope was dimming. When asked about whether anyone would have survived, city Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito said: "I would doubt that very seriously."

As some of the several evacuated buildings near the explosion site were declared safe for residents to return, Micha Gerland stood at a police barricade and surveyed the remains of his apartment.

"I still don't believe it," said Gerland, 37, who escaped with nothing but his wallet, phone, keys and the clothes he was wearing. "Who thinks that something like that happens?"

Inspectors from Con Ed had visited that building about an hour before the explosion and determined work to upgrade gas service didn't pass inspection, locking the line to ensure it wouldn't be used and then leaving, officials said.

Fifteen minutes later, the sushi restaurant's owner smelled gas and called the landlord, who called the general contractor, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said. Nobody called 911 or Con Ed.

The contractor, Dilber Kukic, and the owner's son went into the basement and opened a door, and then the explosion happened, burning their faces, Boyce said. Kukic, who has pleaded not guilty to an unrelated charge of bribing a housing inspector, declined through his lawyer to comment on the circumstances surrounding the explosion.

The building had an existing gas line intended to serve the sushi restaurant; the work underway was to put in a bigger line to serve the entire building, Con Ed President Craig Ivey said.

The landlord didn't respond to calls and emails Friday and Saturday from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Associated Press Radio Correspondent Julie Walker contributed to this report.

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