By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK, March 18 (Reuters) - The federal agency investigating a natural gas explosion that leveled two New York City apartment buildings last week, killing eight people, said on Tuesday it had identified a gas leak next to one of the buildings.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents involving pipelines carrying hazardous materials, has been studying the gas lines to determine what caused the explosion and the collapse of the two five-story buildings in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood last Wednesday.
The five women and three men killed in the explosion died of burns, smoke inhalation or blunt-force trauma, a spokeswoman for the New York City Medical Examiner said Tuesday. The deaths were ruled accidental, she said.
The buildings came down moments after a resident in the area called utility Consolidated Edison to complain of the smell of gas. The force of the explosion was felt up to a mile (1.6 km) away.
The NTSB, in a statement on Tuesday, also said the eight-inch (20 cm) cast iron and plastic gas main that served the buildings had failed a pressure test at the normal operating pressure.
Pressure testing of the lines serving adjacent buildings found no significant problems, the NTSB said.
Last week, the agency said that preliminary tests had indicated a high concentration of gas underground.
Consolidated Edison Inc said two spot checks of the building's gas equipment in February had shown that all systems were operating normally.
On Monday, a Harlem resident filed the first lawsuit related to the blast, charging Con Edison and the owner of one of the buildings with negligence.
The lawsuit, by Harlem resident Michelle Nelson, contends that she "was caused to sustain serious injuries and to have suffered pain, shock, mental anguish." It says the utility and landlord were "negligent in the ownership, operation, management, control, maintenance, repair and/or construction of the aforesaid premises and its natural gas service lines."
A spokesman for Con Edison said on Tuesday the company would review the complaint "at an appropriate time."
Representatives of the building's owner could not immediately be reached.
Police identified the final victim on Monday as Mayumi Nakamura, 34, a Japanese tourist. Nakamura had been staying in one of the buildings that fell, and it took longer to release her identity as her family had to travel from Japan to identify her, authorities said.
About 60 families, or 100 people, were evacuated from the neighborhood following the collapse of the buildings, and many have yet to return to their homes as the investigation continues.