Illegal gas tapping eyed in deadly E.V. explosion

An explosion rocked 121 Second Ave. on Thursday afternoon, sparking a raging fire. In the end, 12 people were left injured and one-and-a-half buildings had collapsed. Photo via Twitter / @liberation nyc

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Illicit gas-siphoning is suspected as the cause of last Thursday’s catastrophic explosion and fire that leveled three East Village tenements, badly damaged another building, and left two men dead and more than a dozen people injured.

“There’s reason to believe so far that there may have been inappropriate tampering with the gas lines within the building, but until we get full evidence, we can’t conclude that,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday.

On Sunday bodies of two men who had been unaccounted for, Nicholas Figuerora, 23, and Moises Lucon, 26, were pulled from the rubble at the northwest corner of E. Seventh St. and Second Ave. They had both been in Sushi Park, a restaurant on the ground floor of 121 Second Ave. Figuerora, who had been on a date, had been going to pay the check and Lucon was farther inside the eatery, when the storefront blew out into the street.

This week, demolition of the site continued, as workers got closer to the basement of 121 Second Ave., where they hope to find more clues about exactly what caused the devastating explosion.

The incident had ripple effects throughout the area, as residents in a number of nearby buildings were evacuated from their homes. A total of 144 families were displaced.

East Villagers last Thursday initially heard an enormous explosion around 3:15 p.m.

Black smoke filled the sky as firefighters rushed to E. Seventh St., where the second building north of the intersection’s northwest corner had suffered a partial collapse.

Calling from the scene, Anna Sawaryn told The Villager she had been walking her nephew Lucas Halushka, 10, home from school when they heard the huge boom.

“It was really, really loud,” she said. “We heard it all the way up on 13th St.”

They rushed down six blocks to where all they cloud see was a thick cloud of smoke at the location.

Sawaryn said she saw firefighters put up a ladder on E. Seventh St. and climb up to the top of the corner building, 119 Second Ave., and that other firefighters also climbed up the fire escape on the building’s Second Ave. side.

The corner building was formerly home to Love Saves the Day, the quirky toy-and-novelties store, which closed several years ago.

Speaking into her cell phone as sirens blared as more fire trucks were rushing to the scene, she said intrepid local residents helped deal with the disaster during the initial chaos.

“The nice thing is that community members jumped in and started diverting traffic,” she said.

However, the situation rapidly turned even worse, as a fire that started in the basement of 121 Second Ave. soon consumed the building, as well as 123 Second Ave., just to the north. No. 123 soon collapsed entirely, to be followed by No. 121. What was left of No. 119 and any other parts of the buildings’ facades was later demolished by firefighters knocking it down with their fire hoses.

The situation escalated to a seven-alarm fire, drawing 250 firefighters to the scene. At one point, it was feared two smoke eaters had been lost, and a “mayday” call was put out. But they were found.

The fire raging during the Second Ave. gas explosion in March 2015. Photos by Clayton Patterson

In the short window of time before the buildings went up in flames, firefighters had heroically searched them to get everyone out. News sources reported that cable workers helped pull victims to safety, while a pedestrian jumped up to pull down a ladder on a fire escape for a woman who was gripped with fear and stuck on it at the second floor.

Firefighters were able to confine the inferno to the row of four buildings. No. 125 was left still standing but badly damaged. On Saturday, the pile of wreckage was still burning and smoldering. After the two men’s bodies were found Sunday, the effort turned toward clearing the site and the ongoing investigation into why it all had happened.

In another sad development that sparked outrage, the New York Post reported in a Page One article, headlined “Village Idiots,” that tourists and clueless narcissists were now taking “selfies” of themselves smiling and flashing peace signs in front of the wreckage.

Dr. Diane McClean, a single mother of two 5-year-old twin girls and an 8-year old boy, lost her four-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment of 35 years. She’s now doubled-up with friends on Grand St.

A Go Fund Me campaign for “East Village Fire Relief” (http://www.gofundme.com/q77ktg) has already brought in more than $76,000 in donations for her and her family.

“The 14th Street Y is rallying around us,” McClean said. “The kindergarten teachers at our school, Children’s Workshop on E. 12th St., organized a ‘celebration of love’ and surrounded the kids with song.

“I’m really in awe, really, and very humbled by so much generosity around us,” she said. “But that’s exactly why we’ve stayed here. I love the East Village. It’s like nowhere else…I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker.

McClean works as child psychiatrist at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, serving disadvantaged youth.

“One of the reasons I could serve people in the city is because I had low rent,” she added. “I’m still committed to the East Village and the Lower East Side. I love my community. I’m going to find a way to stay in our neighborhood.” 

Others who are pitching in to help the fire victims include Virgin Mobil, which has donated fully loaded cellphone for one month. Boka, at 9 St. Mark’s Place, donated free lunch. Trash and Vaudeville, at 4 St. Mark’s Place, donated free pants. The Chinatown YMCA offered a one-month free pass.

Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) has also been helping the displaced residents. About 100 tenants came to an emergency GOLES legal clinic on Monday night.

A woman who lives on E. Seventh St. next to the disaster site said her building is “off limits to all tenants — for safety reasons — until further notice.”

“Firemen broke down all the doors in my building to see if there were people inside each apartment — and not because of fire,” she said, requesting anonymity. “It was just a precautionary move that firemen usually do when there’s fire involved in adjacent buildings. Lots of windows were also broken in my building.”

Meanwhile, the investigation into the tragedy’s cause is ongoing. The focus is on suspected tampering with gas lines.

An explosion rocked 121 Second Ave., sparking a raging fire. Two men died, 12 were injured and three buildings destroyed. Photo via Twitter / @liberation nyc

Con Ed inspectors had visited the building’s basement at 2 p.m. on Thursday to check on work being done by a plumber. A second gas-metering system had been installed. However, the setup in the basement did not pass the utility’s inspection, and the Con Ed workers “locked” the new gas line before leaving. Clearly, they had not smelled gas at that time, or they would have done something.

After the inspectors left, the owner of Sushi Park, smelling gas, called — not 911, as he should have done — but the building’s landlord, Maria Hrynenko. Her son, Michael Hrynenko, and Dilber Kukic, a general contractor, went to the site to investigate, and when they opened a side door to 119 Second Ave., the explosion detonated.

Kukic helped carry the injured Hrynenko away from the blast, according to police. Both were being treated at New York Presbyterian Hospital’s burn unit.

Maria Hrynenko inherited the two buildings from her late husband, Michael, who started Kiev restaurant, at the southwest corner of E. Seventh St. and Second Ave., and was also a cashier at Veselka.

In August, Con Ed had found that the gas line into Sushi Park had been tapped in a dangerous way. Inspectors back then had smelled a “strong odor” of gas in the basement of 121 Second Ave., and found “multiple leaks” in hoses that had been linked to the line. This all created a “hazardous situation,” according to Con Ed. The company shut off gas to the building for 10 days, until it determined it safe to restore the service.

Paul Shay, owner of A Real Good Plumber, said it’s clear that whatever went wrong last Thursday, it happened after the Con Ed inspectors had left. Shay, who has lived in the East Village since 1979, in the past did lots of work on the neighborhood’s squatter buildings.

“Obviously, they had an old, inadequate service,” he said of 121 Second Ave. “And Con Ed said they had found an illegal tap before.”

Shay said the new second gas-metering service that was recently installed involved putting a metal sleeve in the building foundation and bringing in a new gas line from the street.

Not liking what they saw in the basement, the inspectors left the new gas line locked when they left on Thursday. The lock would have been strong metal, while the new pipe would have been CPVC plastic.

Perhaps someone tried to tamper with the first pipe again once Con Ed left, causing a major gas leak, Shay said. Or, he said, maybe they tried to hook the new pipe into the old one by installing a “T.”

He was just speculating, he said. Though he added, whatever did happen, “That would have been a pretty good-sized leak.”

Clare Donohue of the Sane Energy Project, in a press release, warned of the dangers of natural gas.

“Our heartfelt sympathies go out to anyone who has been impacted or injured because of the explosion in the East Village,” Donohue said. “The accident was tragic, devastating — and entirely predictable. The unfortunate truth is that gas infrastructure is not safe.

“In 2014, there were at least 18 separate accidents in the United States involving gas pipelines, including the explosion in East Harlem that killed eight people and injured dozens more. 

“For years,” she said, “New York City has been intensifying its reliance on gas and encouraging the build-out of gas infrastructure. Because of this trend, we have repeatedly argued that another gas accident in New York City was only a matter of time. We are enormously saddened to see these predictions proven true. 

“ ‘Natural’ gas is often sold to the public as ‘clean,’ a ‘safe alternative’ to coal or oil,” Donohue stated. “But gas is a fossil fuel, like any other. It leaks, it explodes, and it has a devastating impact on our climate.

“Replacing old gas infrastructure with new gas infrastructure is not the answer. The answer is replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

Alison Flynn and her family, who were in town to visit her son, Kieran, at N.Y.U., were passing by the devastated area on Monday.

“It’s kind of eerie,” she said. “Was it natural gas?” she asked. “It’s more dangerous. In England, where we live, we’ve got fracking and we’re trying to stop it.”

They said they were all staying for a week at an apartment in the East Village that they got through Airbnb for $2,000.

Nearby, Joe Hofmann, a barista at Porto Rico Importing Co., was outside taking a cigarette break. Business has been good, he said, due to all the police and firefighters, plus gawkers coming by to see the scene of destruction.

“Everybody is coming in, taking pictures,” he said. “Saturday and Sunday, that corner was full of people,” he said, pointing toward St. Mark’s Place. “I haven’t seen the selfie sticks, but I’ve seen the cameras. Then they come in and ask what happened. Some of them don’t even know what happened.”

With reporting

by Sarah Ferguson

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