The memories and residual effects of an explosion and building collapse on Boro Park’s central 13th Avenue shopping district left the busy thoroughfare reeling the day after the close of Yom Tov. The blast, which occurred on Shabbos Chol Hamoed, claimed two lives, injured several passersby, destroyed one building and damaged several others.
“There was a pillar of smoke that you could see from all around,” said a Boro Park resident who asked to be identified only by his first name, Shia. “We were sitting in our sukkah and heard — and saw the fire trucks just kept coming and coming. Since it was Shabbos, the streets were empty and they were driving the wrong way down 13th Avenue. We had no idea what had happened and we feared it might be, chas v’shalom, a terror attack. My children walked over to the area to see for themselves, but found the smoke so strong that they couldn’t get closer than a block away.”
Very concerned, people started flocking to the scene and, within a few hours, the whole area was crowded with hundreds of onlookers.
At about one in the afternoon, the building, just off the corner of 13th Avenue and 42nd Street, suddenly exploded and burst into flames. Neighbor Harry Roth said a sign sprang off the building’s storefront before “the front of the building fell off and it started burning.”
Shimon Fried was about five blocks away when he heard a boom. “I just saw plumes of smoke coming out,” he said. “It was scary.”
When emergency crews arrived, they found the entire front of the three-story building blown into the street. Officials believe the explosion originated in an apartment on the second floor, where a tenant had recently disconnected a stove. Fire commissioner Daniel Nigro said no one had reported smelling gas in the area.
Investigations are still ongoing and no certain cause has been identified, but as of Wednesday, Rabbi Yanky Mayer of Misaskim said authorities suspected that the incident might have been caused “intentionally.”
Rabbi Mayer said that the immediate response and subsequent handling of the explosion was a massively coordinated effort from many major city agencies and community organizations.
Tenant Ligia Puello, a native of the Dominican Republic, died in the explosion. She lived in a third-floor apartment with her daughter, who was away at the time.
Monday, Shemini Atzeres, the body of another victim, 47-year-old Francesca Figueroa was uncovered in the rubble. She was apparently moving out of her second floor apartment in the apartment building that exploded.
Shamshi Segedim, his 9-year-old son, and a 27-year-old man were returning from shul when they were hit by flying debris and injured. Segedim, a manager in Boro Park’s Glatt Gourmet, underwent a seven-hour surgery and doctors are optimistic that they will be able to save his severely fractured legs. The other two suffered less serious wounds. Ten firefighters also had minor injuries.
Mayor De Blasio said that the incident having occurred on Shabbos in the densely Orthodox neighborhood could have saved lives because there were fewer people walking in the neighborhood.
“Had it been the next day it would have been a much worse situation,” he said.
As an army of police and firefighters converged on the area, which was deemed a crime scene, 13th Avenue was shut down for several blocks from the time of the accident. Although some of the restrictions were slowly lifted, the many surrounding shops faced several challenges.
“We didn’t know if we could even get to the store Motzoei Shabbos, but we decided that we would do ours and Hashem would do His,” said Mrs. Klein of Korn’s Bakery, less than a block away from the scene. “We got to the store, and even though cars couldn’t get through, it was Erev Yom Tov and people had no choice but to find a way to get to us.”
Mrs. Klein said that the city brought large dumpsters and the street was cleaned up relatively quickly.
“The main effect on us was that customers couldn’t get through,” said the proprietor of Hagefen liquor store, located diagonally across from the accident. “We opened up after Shabbos, but on what would have been a busy time, no one could get through.”
It was Hagefen’s security camera that captured the explosion, and a steady stream of investigators has been reviewing the film in the store.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the block where the explosion occurred was still closed to all traffic. Stores on the opposite side of the street, some of which suffered minor damage, were allowed to open, but pedestrian traffic was still restricted. Officer Martinez, who was regulating foot traffic on the street, told Hamodia that the city wanted to ensure that nobody would be injured by the effects of ongoing demolition and excavation work.
The blast follows two other fatal gas explosions in recent years in the city. One killed eight people in East Harlem last year. And two people died in an East Village explosion this year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the state’s Department of Public Service, which regulates utility companies, to launch an investigation into “the latest in a disturbing trend of incidents.”
The National Grid utility said it was assisting in the investigation.
With Reporting by Associated Press