One Year Later, Renewal and Awareness at The Heart of the Blast

West 23rd St. on the morning of Sun., Sept. 18, 2016, with the block between Sixth and Seventh Aves. closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Photo by Scott Stiffler.

BY EILEEN STUKANE | Words on the Council of the City of New York Proclamation, framed and hanging near the front door of the Malibu Diner, honor the character and service of everyone there, and eloquently recall Sept. 17, 2016: “It began as a beautiful September day, not so different from a Tuesday in September 15 years ago, with New Yorkers of every age and background simply going about their lives,” the Proclamation reads, continuing, “In an instant, however, the beauty of the day was shattered… Around 8:30pm, on West 32rd Street in Manhattan, a homemade bomb exploded in a dumpster, injuring 31 people, including two dozen taken to the hospital, and terrifying almost everyone who heard it.”

A year later, commerce on W. 23rd St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. is as normal as ever. With the exception of boarded up windows on two unoccupied buildings, the boulevard shows no signs of the explosion that propelled shrapnel into concrete, bricks, cars, and people, and blew out storefronts and windows. Yet on this anniversary of the blast, aftereffects range from on one hand, a stronger sense of community, a positive awareness of shared resilience, to on the other hand, personal anxiety issues.

The explosion, which within two days was identified as the alleged terrorist act of 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahimi, occurred in a dumpster containing debris from an extensive and ongoing renovation of Selis Manor (135 W. 23rd St.), a 14-story building with 205 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, public housing for the blind and visually impaired. The dumpster was located on the eastern end of the building. Fortunately, that Saturday night most of the residents were playing Bingo in the building’s ground floor game room on its western end. Although windows were shattered as high as the fourth floor, no one was injured, at least not outwardly. A resident of Selis Manor, Helen Murphy, 65, remembers the “BABOOM” sound and a friend suggesting maybe it was a gas explosion. While she feels that everyone came together as family and calmed each other during the crisis, “I don’t want to be in crowds anymore. I avoid subways, buses, I get very claustrophobic. Now I take cabs.”

Councilmember Corey Johnson with Helen Murphy during a visit to Selis Manor on Tues., Sept. 20, 2016. Murphy recently told Chelsea Now she still experiences anxiety as a result of her proximity to the explosion. Photo by William Alatriste/NYC Council.

VISIONS at Selis Manor/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a rehabilitation and social service organization offering support and counseling for the tenants of Selis Manor as well as other visually impaired New Yorkers, is on the ground floor of Selis Manor, on the side of the building closer to that dumpster a year ago. Then and now, the organization was less concerned about property damage than it was about the residents.

“Tenants are mixed ages, have been blind for different periods of time, and come from very, very different backgrounds,” explained Nancy D. Miller, LMSW, VISIONS executive director/CEO. “For tenants who had previously had any trauma in their lives, that anxiety and reaction to trauma was brought up again, because in those first few days nobody knew exactly what had happened. They also felt extremely vulnerable since there was so much media coverage of the building. They felt that everybody now knew it was a building for the blind and they would be at increased risk.” Licensed social workers at VISIONS together with social workers from NYC’s Service Program for Older Persons (SPOP) counseled tenants for issues Miller says lingered for about six months following the explosion, “and a few people are in longer-term treatment for anxiety that may not have been caused by the bombing but was exacerbated by the bombing,” she added.

Back row, L to R: State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, Councilmember Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Selis Manor on Tues., Sept. 20, 2016. Photo by William Alatriste/NYC Council.

On the practical side, since the blast shut down the elevator at Selis Manor, VISIONS has stocked a greater quantity of emergency supplies for all the apartments. “It’s a lot of water, cereal, packaged milk, diapers, on the main floor,” Miller noted. In the same vein, Joyce Carrico, president, Tenants Association of Selis Manor, has urged tenants to keep canned goods and other rations in their homes. “We’re still trying to get evacuation chairs for people who are wheelchair-bound,” she added. Carrico has been conferring all year with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and other agencies, to fulfill this critical need, revealed by the explosion.

King David Gallery (131 W. 23rd St.) is a custom interior design provider, gallery, and custom framer. Located next door to Selis Manor, King David today sparkles with samples of its many customized mirrors, glass shower stalls, and artwork framed under glass — looking very different from a year ago, when the explosion blew out the entire storefront and caused a crash of glass from shattered mirrors, stalls, frames, and artwork.

King David Gallery, boarded up as a result of damaged sustained from the explosion. Photo by Daniel Kwak.

Sarit Peretz, co-owner with other members of her family, vividly recalls the night of the blast when her family was gathered at her mother’s house. “My brother got a phone call from a client who lives down the block, who told him ‘Your store blew up,’ ” she said. Through her phone, she checked the security cameras and saw broken glass everywhere and the police and FBI in the store. “It was like a crime scene,” she recalled, “blood splattered on the mirrors, on the floor. I guess people were hurt outside from the impact of the explosion and were flung into the storefront.”

It took about 10 days for the store to be up and running again, having sustained damages costing well into the six-figure range. Like other businesses along W. 23rd St., King David Gallery turned over its security cameras to the FBI. (As other business owners have noted, these cameras do not get returned so added to the cost of any damage is the purchase of a new security system.) “We come from Israel, not that we’re used to this, but we know what it feels like,” Peretz said. “We had detectives coming in every day, for a whole month, reporters in and out, a press conference was held in front of the store.”

Overall, insurance companies only compensated minimally for loss of business up and down the street. Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office worked with businesses in the aftermath, connecting them with the appropriate city agencies that could help, such as the NY Superintendent of Financial Services (formerly Superintendent of Insurance).

The damaged windows of Orangetheory Fitness, the only business to report having terrorism insurance at the time of the blast, took months to repair. Photo by Scott Stiffler.

“There was a lot of red tape and bureaucracy and we were making sure businesses were able to reopen as quickly as possible, especially the ones that were immediately next to the blast, like King David,” said Johnson, who was instrumental in organizing the Small Business Crawl of Sat., Sept. 24, 2016, which encouraged New Yorkers to shop on the block of W. 23rd St. that was closed to pedestrian traffic for nearly 48 hours after the bombing. King David Gallery has now signed up for terrorism insurance, which before the blast was an option either unknown or not considered by many Chelsea business owners. The Townhouse Inn of Chelsea (131 W. 23rd St.), a 14-bedroom hotel and the building in which King David Gallery is located, also incurred considerable damages from the explosion. No one at Actium Group, the owner, responded to our requests to talk about the Inn’s recovery.

Across the street from the heart of the blast, Orangetheory Fitness (124 W. 23rd St.) had its storefront windows shattered and destroyed, but the glass storefronts of  La Maison du Macaron (132 W. 23rd St.), directly across from Selis Manor, were miraculously untouched. Today it’s business as usual. The owners of Orangetheory Fitness did not want to comment on this anniversary.

Pascal Goupil arrives in the early morning to create freshly baked pastries for his La Maison du Macaron, which escaped damage from the explosion directly across the street. Photo by Eileen Stukane.

Pascal Goupil, owner of La Maison du Macaron, cozy café, macaroon and pastry shop, was not in the shop at the time of the blast but two female employees were behind the counter. “The dumpster was 20 yards from the shop. It could have come straight through and killed everybody. That was lucky,” Goupil recalled. He praised the city agencies for their work in the aftermath, noting, “There were lots of people coming in to see if there was any need. They were fantastic.”

Lorena Velastegui and Paul Allwright, seen here at the Malibu Diner, were among the Red Cross volunteers serving community needs following the W. 23rd St. explosion. Photo by Eileen Stukane.

“When it comes to difficult moments, we are united and it helps a lot,” said Alex Grimpas, co-owner of Malibu Diner (163 W. 23rd St.), which became a hub for city agencies and the Red Cross during the three days that the street and other businesses were closed down. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, working with the Red Cross, allowed Malibu to open a day after the blast in order to provide meals for tenants at Selis Manor that the Red Cross delivered, and to continue offering regular breakfasts for tenants who know the number of steps to take from their building to the diner, where they socialize and enjoy a meal outside their apartments. Grimpas reached out to support responders from the FBI, NYPD, FDNY, NY Office of Emergency Management, and American Red Cross, by offering Malibu’s facilities and food.

The Tuesday after the blast, Mayor de Blasio, joined by a number of city officials, visited Malibu and spent 45 minutes in a booth, eating and chatting with Chelsea residents. That affirmation from the Mayor, the Proclamation from the NY City Council, and a plaque of appreciation from the NYPD, are touching and important to Grimpas. “The Proclamation will stay on the wall forever,” he said. “You want to work hard and make money but you have to think about the people who live close to you, to give before you take.”

After the blast, Malibu Diner offered a hub for first responders, and prepared meals for the blind and visually impaired residents of Selis Manor. Co-owner Alex Grimpas stands with the City Council’s Proclamation of appreciation and a plaque of recognition from the NYPD’s 13th Precinct. Photo by Eileen Stukane.
L to R: Zina Kirko and Natalie Heras were working at La Maison du Macaron on the night of Sept. 17, 2016, and comforted a family who ran into the shop after the explosion. Photo by Naeisha Rose.
At right, the vacant St. Vincent de Paul Church (123 W. 23rd St.) was boarded up shortly after the explosion shattered its windows. At left, the building housing King David Gallery and The Townhouse Inn of Chelsea also sustained damage. Photo by Scott Stiffler.
Sarit Peretz, one of the family owners of King David Gallery, initially viewed the extensively damaged business through her smartphone connection to the store’s security cameras. Photo by Eileen Stukane.
Three days after the bombing, Orangetheory Fitness owner Jessica Kumari (right) noted, “I’m happy we could help,” regarding the widely disseminated internal and external footage from her 124 W. 23rd St. storefront business. Surveillance cameras showed a flash from the blast, people running, and the studio’s shattered windows. Photo by Scott Stiffler.