Almost a Year After a Gas Explosion, East Village Residents Remember

An indictment and five arrests help the neighborhood recover and get back to business

Residents and passerby were reminded of Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Locon, both killed by the gas explosion that ripped through an East Village apartment building last March. (David Roza)

Residents and passerby were reminded of Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Locon, both killed by the gas explosion that ripped through an East Village apartment building last March. (David Roza)

Last March an East Village apartment building exploded, killing two people, injuring dozens, closing down businesses, and rattling a neighborhood to its core. Almost a year later, the residents of the area finally got some closure when five people—a general contractor, two plumbers, the facility manager and the owner of the apartment building—were taken into custody on February 11th and face criminal charges for the explosion.

But for others, like Ola Abdelwahed, co-owner, cook, server and cashier at B&H Dairy—only a few doors down from the blast site—the turbulent event is but a memory and business is back as usual.

“We lost a lot of money because of it,” said Abdelwahed, whose 83-year-old restaurant, a neighborhood icon, could not re-open for four months as inspectors assessed and re-assessed all the gas lines on the block. “The most important thing for us now is to get back to business.”

That business was booming in the early afternoon the day after the indictment. Customers squeezed past each other into the narrow diner and dug into buttery challah, bright-red borscht, and lightly browned potatoes. Jeffrey Brennan, a regular at B&H for 40 years, was enjoying a cup of coffee and a newspaper.

“The more I hear about the details the worse I feel about it,” said Brennan, who was sitting at the same chair facing the door when the explosion went off. The building owners were accused of using unsafe gas lines—flexible rubber hoses—as a way to cut costs and make recently-renovated apartments available for rent faster. “That’s the lowest thing,” Brennan said and, on the indictment, he added, “It’s about time.”

Brennan recalled seeing smoke rising over the whole block. “I just immediately said, ‘people have died in this,’” he said. “It was nasty. I still get shaky when sirens go by.”

A veteran songwriter and vocalist, Brennan has spent a long time around concerts, but the explosion left a permanent mark on his hearing. “My hearing was fine after years of loud rock and roll,” he said. “Now I need everyone to repeat everything.”

Brennan was just a few doors down from the explosion, but the mailwoman walking down the street would have been even closer, had she not been on vacation when it happened.

“I knew the busboy in Sushi Park,” she said, referring to Moises Locon, who was 26 when the explosion killed him. “I would give him the mail at about three o’clock. I would have been right there when it blew up.”

The mailwoman’s route was blocked by police barriers when she returned. “I couldn’t even deliver the mail on that side of the street,” she said. The police barriers disrupted businesses on that side of the street for weeks. “It was really, really sad.”

The barriers also made an impression on Esther Ramos, a realtor and substitute teacher who passes the blast site frequently while running errands.

“It almost felt like another World Trade Center,” she said. “People were in awe; how could this happen? Here?”

Ramos didn’t see the explosion affect real estate in the area, though she hoped it would have an effect on property owners. “Hopefully this will open the eyes of other landlords, who will take this into consideration.”

Another woman passing by was less optimistic. “There are probably a lot of landowners across the city doing the same thing,” she said. “And the crane that fell—everybody pay more attention! Don’t try to make a buck off the life and death of other people.”

A resident of the building across the street since 1981, she heard the big boom last year and saw the flames. “You’re used to seeing this in movies and films,” she said. “I left town the next day because I have a lung problem and I couldn’t breathe the air. So I had to go to Massachusetts for seven months.”

According to Gothamist, the maximum punishment for the five people charged is 15 years in prison, but that wasn’t enough for this resident. “They should get 25 to life,” she said, looking through her sunglasses at pictures of the two young men killed by the explosion, hanging from the fence around the empty blast site.

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