By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Wrecking crews on Wednesday demolished a rundown Cleveland house where three young women were imprisoned and tortured by Ariel Castro for about a decade.

An aunt of Gina DeJesus, one of the three abducted and held captive by Castro, took the first swipe at the house shortly after 7 a.m. EDT, operating a hydraulic excavator with assistance as a crowd swarmed the site, snapping photographs and applauding.

DeJesus' mother, Nancy Ruiz, cheered as the huge arm on a heavy demolition truck ripped into the pink room where her daughter had been held and fed through a hole in the door, County Executive Ed FitzGerald told Reuters. Reporters had limited access to the site.

The longest-held captive, Michelle Knight, 32, arrived at the house with a bunch of yellow balloons and watched as the home of her tormentor was torn to the ground.

"Nobody was there for me when I was missing," said Knight, who is estranged from her family. "I want people out there to know, including mothers, that they can have strength, they can have hope, their child will come back."

The razing came less than a week after Castro, 53, was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 1,000 years, for holding Knight, DeJesus and Amanda Berry captive in his home on Cleveland's west side. They were 14, 16 and 20 when they were abducted.

Rubble from the home was placed in dumpsters as church bells rang at nearby Immanuel Church.

"The girls heard these bells every Sunday. That's why (they are) ringing them," said Herman Wendel, 84, a lifelong member of the church.

The debris will be trucked to an undisclosed location, shredded and burned so that no one will take "souvenirs," as some people did from the home of famed Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, said Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty. Vials of dirt collected from Sowell's house were sold on a website before the home was razed in 2011.

Castro signed over the deed to the three-story house to Cuyahoga County when he pleaded guilty to 937 charges, including aggravated murder, for causing Knight to miscarry by beating and starving her.

Berry, 27, DeJesus, 23, and Knight went missing from the west side of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004.

On May 6, they were rescued, along with Berry's 6-year-old daughter by Castro, after neighbors heard Berry's cries and helped her break through the house's front door.

Police found more than $22,000 in a basement washing machine. Authorities had planned to use it to pay for the demolition but the wrecking company donated its services. The cash was then offered to the three women, who turned it down, asking for it to "go back to the community," McGinty said.

He said the county has acquired the deeds to two dilapidated homes that neighbor the Castro house and will begin demolition on those properties soon.

One spectator taking photos was Lisy Gonzalez, 35, a hospital maintenance worker who grew up in the neighborhood. She said the former site of the house of horrors should be used to build a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

"It should be a safe house. Something different than it was," Gonzalez said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Bernadette Baum and Jeffrey Benkoe)