BY YANNIC RACK | Updated Wed., Feb. 17: Almost a year after a gas explosion rocked the East Village, killing two men and leveling three buildings, four people were indicted last Thursday for manslaughter and other charges in connection with the blast.
Maria Hrynenko, 56, who owns the building at 121 Second Ave. where the blast occurred, her son Michael Hrynenko, 30, contractor Dilber Kukic, 40, and plumber Athanasios “Jerry” Ioannidis, 59, were also charged with criminally negligent homicide and assault in the second degree, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
In addition, Andrew Trombettas, 57, was charged with “renting” his master plumbing license to Ioannidis so the latter could get work on the property approved, prosecutors said.
Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance said last week that the defendants set up an elaborate illegal gas line and hid the setup from inspectors, causing the explosion and subsequent fire on March 26, 2015, that claimed the lives of Moises Locón and Nicholas Figueroa and injured and displaced dozens of others.
“The seven-alarm fire that killed two people and engulfed three buildings in March 2015 was caused by a foreseeable, preventable and completely avoidable gas explosion,” Vance said.
All five defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges at an arraignment in State Supreme Court in Manhattan last Thursday. Bail was set at $1 million for all the defendants — except Trombettas, who must post $100,000.
This week, tenants and restaurant owners on the block who suffered in the aftermath of the explosion, expressed mixed feelings about the indictments.
“It’s a very empty feeling. These guys got indicted, so someone’s going to do a few years,” said Stuart Lipsky, whose second-floor apartment at 125 Second Ave. now abuts an empty corner lot.
“I’d be pleasantly surprised if they all went to jail,” he said. “But I don’t have much faith in the system.”
Lipsky, who has been in the apartment for more than 35 years and now lives there with his wife and teenage daughter, said the gas in their building was only restored three weeks ago.
The family also lost one of their cats in the explosion, and their home suffered extensive fire damage.
Lipsky said the charges alone didn’t bring him any closure.
“How are you going to make them feel the pain that they’ve caused everyone else — the poor father [of Figueroa], who’s still coming to cry by the fence?
“Justice will be served when I can go visit these bastards in jail,” he said.
For others, the news of the indictments brought some long-awaited sense of relief.
“Of course the charges are great. This is what they deserve,” said Fawzy Abdelwahed, standing behind the counter at B&H Dairy, the kosher restaurant he owns with his wife at 127 Second Ave.
The blast almost put him out of business. The restaurant had to stay closed for almost five months after the explosion, while Abdelwahed struggled with the red tape of city bureaucracy and had to install costly upgrades to his facilities that were mandated by Con Edison.
Despite two successful fundraisers that brought in more than $50,000, Abdelwahed said he was still forced to take out a loan for the same amount.
The Stage restaurant, another neighborhood staple across the street, wasn’t so lucky, though — almost a year on, its storefront remains shuttered.
Vance said the indictment should be a warning to building owners and others that might be tempted to cut corners in the city’s real estate boom.
“Development, construction and renovation is happening across the city at breakneck speed,” he said.
“In this market, the temptation for property owners, contractors and managers to take dangerous — and, in some instances, deadly —shortcuts has never been greater.”
Last week, prosecutors described an illegal scheme that involved the landlord, her son, the contractor and an unlicensed plumber, who allegedly twice installed unsafe gas systems in the basement of the building — hiding the second one from inspectors after the first was found and shut off by Con Edison.
According to the indictment, Maria Hrynenko informed Kukic in July 2014 that gas for the apartments at 121 Second Ave. should be taken from the meter of the building’s ground-floor restaurant, the Japanese eatery Sushi Park.
Shortly thereafter, Ioannidis, the plumber, illegally connected flexible hosing to the restaurant’s meter in order to provide gas to the residential tenants, who were not informed of the source of the gas, according to the D.A.
But an inspection by Con Ed and the Fire Department in August 2014, triggered by residents smelling gas, revealed the setup to be unsafe and likely to disconnect, break or leak, according to prosecutors. Con Ed then shut off the gas supply, leaving both the restaurant and the upstairs tenants without gas.
But instead of hiring a licensed plumber to fix the situation, investigators said the defendants then constructed another unsafe gas delivery system by installing a series of pipes and valves connecting the residential units in 121 Second Ave. to an uncapped, commercial-grade gas meter in the adjacent, vacant property at 119 Second Ave., which Hrynenko also owned.
“When Con Ed came in and shut this illegal system off with the hoses, what then happened was the creation of an alternate delivery system behind a locked door in the very same room,” Vance said at a press conference.
After Ioannidis filed paperwork with Con Ed, the company restored gas to the restaurant by mid-August, while upstairs tenants continued to receive gas by way of the defendants’ illegal gas delivery system, according to Vance.
On the day of the explosion, inspectors from Con Ed came to check the system at 119 Second Ave., but found no signs of leaking gas because Kukic and Ioannidis had temporarily turned the illegal gas line off.
After the inspectors left, officials said, Kukic and Hrynenko, the owner’s son, turned the gas back on — but failed to close several valves in the basement of 121 Second Ave. that had been opened for pressure tests by Con Ed, causing them to leak.
Shortly after, the manager of the Japanese restaurant allegedly called landlord Hrynenko and told her that he smelled gas.
Surveillance cameras show Kukic and Hrynenko entering the basement and then swiftly sprinting out of the restaurant without warning any of the patrons or workers, and running around the corner toward the E. Seventh St. entrance, where the illegal gas delivery system was set up, according to prosecutors.
When the gas caused an explosion moments later, Locón, an employee of Sushi Park, and Figueroa, a diner, were killed. The ensuing fire quickly spread to neighboring buildings 119 and 123 Second Ave., and all three structures eventually collapsed.
“The individuals involved in the East Village gas explosion showed a blatant and callous disregard for human life,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “These indictments will hopefully bring Mr. Figueroa and Mr. Locón’s families some closure following this tragic event.”
City Councilmember Rosie Mendez said last week that she hoped the landlord would be held accountable for her “reckless actions.”
“The events from last year are still very much with us in the East Village,” she said. “Every day, the people of the East Village have been waiting for justice. Today we are one step closer.”
At B&H Dairy, business is largely back to usual, although Abdelwahed fears Maria Hrynenko’s insurance will be depleted before any of the businesses and residents can claim compensation for their losses.
For him and his family, the explosion also left more permanent marks. At the time of the blast, his wife, Ola, was three months pregnant with their first child together. (The couple also have two children from previous relationships.)
A few weeks after the explosion, she had a miscarriage, which Fawzy blames on the acute stress that followed.
“I will never forget it,” Abdelwahed said. “It was a tough experience.”
“I don’t feel sorry for no one. Not even one of them,” his wife said of the indictments.
She added that now, after they barely managed to get back on their feet, the chance to start a family had passed for the time being.
“Do we deserve this? No,” she said. “Nobody did.”