Over three grim and grueling days of digging through the rubble of two East Harlem buildings annihilated in a gas explosion, rescue workers uncovered eight bodies and a catalog of ruined lives. On Saturday, though, they also discovered a small, but precious treasure.
Buried among the scorched debris, firefighters found a Bible belonging to the Spanish Christian Church, which occupied the basement and ground floor in 1644 Park Avenue, one of the buildings destroyed. Though dust-covered and crumpled, the Bible was largely intact, a gold inscription on its spine reading “Santa Biblia.”
When firefighters presented the Bible, the church’s 83-year-old pastor, the Rev. Thomas Perez, who had often stood vigil over the blast site these past days, was overcome. Mr. Perez, who arrived near the site to lead a small prayer gathering, experienced chest pains, witnesses said, and was taken away by an ambulance.
In a news conference, Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano of the Fire Department said that Mr. Perez was recovering at Lenox Hill Hospital.
“We were very proud to get that back for him,” Mr. Cassano said, referring to the Bible.
For Mr. Perez, who has led the church for 56 years, the grief has been overwhelming.
Many of the victims were members of his congregation who lived in apartments above the church. That building and the one next door at 1646 Park Avenue were leveled in the explosion on Wednesday.
The precise cause of the blast remains unknown, though officials are focusing on the possibility of a faulty or broken gas main beneath Park Avenue.
Investigators have said that underground air samples taken in the vicinity of the blast site a few hours after the explosion contained dangerous levels of methane gas, which, they said, is not normally found in New York City soil.
Emergency crews have yet to zero in on the epicenter of the explosion, though the pattern of debris and the angle of collapse have offered clues. Investigators are focusing on the basement of 1644 Park Avenue, which appears to have come down vertically, with each floor pancaking on top of the others, investigators have said.
The collapse of 1646 Park Avenue was less uniform. The floors collapsed like dominoes, investigators said, one side falling faster than the other.