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Body recovered from South Philly explosion debris

It's still not clear what caused the explosion and three-alarm fire that caused several rowhouses to collapse and left two people presumed to be dead.

A fire marshal watches Friday as firefighters work to recover victims of the explosion and fire on the 1400 block of South Eighth Street.
A fire marshal watches Friday as firefighters work to recover victims of the explosion and fire on the 1400 block of South Eighth Street.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

More than 24 hours after an explosion in South Philadelphia leveled several rowhouses and left at least two people presumed dead, searchers recovered the body of one of the victims Friday afternoon.

The body was pulled from the rubble late Friday afternoon after an hours-long effort to make the site safe enough for recovery operations to resume. The victim wasn’t immediately identified.

Into Friday evening, crews were still at work using heavy machinery on the 1400 block of South Eighth Street, where Thursday’s three-alarm fire and explosion left three houses completely collapsed and rendered two others structurally unstable. Broken glass littered the street, and the windows were blown out on buildings adjacent to the rubble.

While work continued on the street, operations at the site of the collapsed buildings — and search efforts for what authorities have said is a second victim — were halted for the evening. They are expected to resume Saturday.

Earlier Friday, Fikke Kambong, who lives in one of the homes that partially collapsed but wasn’t home at the time of the explosion, said her 65-year-old father, Rudi Kambong, who lives with her, had not been accounted for. He was on bed rest on the second floor. Through a friend who translated, Kambong said her father had a stroke about a year ago and can’t speak.

“We just want to know what happened,” Kambong said. “We want to have closure.”

A spokesperson with the Fire Department couldn’t confirm whether Kambong was one of the people presumed dead.

Crews controlled the massive blaze within about three hours Thursday, but the pile of debris was impenetrable for much of the day Friday, though crews eventually gained access in the afternoon.

Concerns about the stability of the street and structures delayed the efforts to excavate the collapsed buildings, hindering recovery attempts, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said at a Friday morning press briefing.

“This was a very dangerous incident, and it remains so,” Thiel said. The street was “undermined,” he said, and needed to be made safe for heavy equipment — steel plates must be put on the road — before excavation of the fallen buildings and recovery of the people believed to be trapped in the rubble could resume.

» READ MORE: South Philly fire: How you can help, and what local businesses are doing for displaced families

Friday evening, Thiel said crews would need to dismantle buildings on either side of the wreckage — the two partially collapsed structures — in order to continue recovery efforts.

When fire crews arrived at the scene Thursday, the odor of gas was strong and live wires hung in the air, Thiel said. At Friday’s briefing, the commissioner declined to comment on the source of the explosion and what he called a “gas-fed fire," citing the ongoing investigation.

“It’s going to be quite some time before we can answer questions like that,” he said.

Meanwhile, residents in South Philly were trying to reenter their homes after having been evacuated from the area. In total, about 60 people were initially evacuated from the surrounding area and about 10 houses were without utilities overnight.

On the block Friday morning, Sharon and Al Nicotra were assessing the scene where they own three houses that they rent out. They were counting their blessings — Sharon said her 80-year-old aunt owns the middle house that had collapsed after the explosion. The aunt was at her other home in Margate when the blast occurred.

“Thank God she wasn’t here,” Sharon Nicotra said. “She’d be dead.”

Now, the whole family is grappling with losing the home that’s been theirs for more than 100 years.

“It’s leveled,” she said. “It’s a parking lot.”

Lauren Harrison and Doreen Mosher were on their way back into their home on Wilder Street — which runs perpendicular to Eighth, where the explosion took place — first thing Friday. They stayed at a friend’s house overnight because their electric and gas were shut off, but they had to return and pack their bags — they had to catch a flight to Florida for the holidays but weren’t able to pack Thursday night because their home had gone dark.

The two have lived in South Philly for about 10 years. Harrison, 38, said she didn’t know the victims but couldn’t stop thinking about them and their families. She said the neighborhood felt a little eerie — normally when she walked out of her home, she looked down the street and saw rowhouses. Now those houses are gone, and she can see the street behind them.

“It was a giant hole,” she said.

Isabella Yannoni, 24, was briefly allowed back in her home on Eighth Street Friday morning, and didn’t know what to expect. She hadn’t been home during the explosion, and was relieved with what she found when she returned.

“It looks exactly as we left it,” she recalled telling her roommate, who had been evacuated in the incident. But, their utilities were still out.

“All our food is going to go bad,” she noted.

Thiel said utility service on the block would likely be on-and-off throughout the day Friday, and potentially longer.

Other residents were hugging on the street, and almost all of them knew something about what happened Thursday as soon as they heard the boom: Neighbors ran toward the fire and some jumped on top of the debris and tried to save a person beneath before fire crews arrived.

“Typical South Philly,” said Katie Manherz, who lives a few blocks away.

The block where the blast took place is just a few blocks from East Passyunk Avenue and is ethnically diverse, even more so than the area surrounding it, which in 2017 was about 65% white and had large Hispanic and Asian populations, census data shows. More than a third of the community reported speaking a language other than English at home.

“We really saw the best of Philadelphia yesterday,” Thiel said, praising both the efforts of first responders and the neighbors who tried to offer assistance.

» READ MORE: After rowhouses exploded, neighbors rushed to help: ‘It’s really a South Philly thing’

That neighborliness was also evident at Benna’s Cafe at Eighth and Wharton Streets, where owner Nancy Trachtenberg, 47, was starting a collection for those displaced.

There is now a pink box near the door of the cafe, with a handwritten sign saying: “Donate here for those affected by the fire on 14XX s 8th. Gently used clothes, toiletries, & you can buy gift certificates for victims and prepay their coffee.”

Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith and Robert Moran contributed to this article.