Explosion Rocks Boerum Hill

Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, circa early 1900's. The cobblestone streets wind their way through an immigrant rich densely packed community. Everybody knows everyone else. The houses are large and spacious. Their trademark brown facade gave them their name: brownstones.

Boerum Hill, circa 1960's. The neighborhood is in decline. Racial tensions are beginning to erupt. Crime is on the rise and the phenomenon known as "white flight" has begun. The once distinguished brownstones are now graffiti covered. They go vacant, unrepaired, neglected.

Boerum Hill, circa 1970's. In an effort to restore life to the once tight knit community, Brooklyn Union Gas (the local gas utility) sponsors "The Cinderella Project". They, along with other private interests provide low interest loans to anyone who will buy and or restore the brownstones. Boerum Hill, present day. The neighborhood is alive. The once eyesores of the area are now beautiful examples of a long lost architecture. The sense of community has returned. However, the same organization that helped revitalize the area may now be responsible for the destruction of two of those refurbished homes.

77-44-567 1941 hours 7/11/00

The members of engine company 226, located at 409 State Street, were going about their normal business in quarters when an explosion rocked the firehouse. As the housewatch called in the verbal alarm, members on foot raced up the block to the source. At first, it was hard to see what had happened as dust and smoke clouded the street. Moments later they were faced with a monumental task.

A 4-story brownstone located at 420 State Street had been reduced to a pile of bricks and debris about 20 feet high. The adjoining house, 418 State Street, suffered a collapse but remained intact. Thus began a rescue operation that continues even as I write this 25 hours after the fact. By 1950 hours, units from all parts of the city began screaming to the scene. Rescue 3 with the collapse unit from The Bronx, Haz-Mat 1 and Rescue 4 from Queens, Tac-1 and the SOC Battalion from Roosevelt Island, and host of other units. EMS prepared for a mass casualty incident (MCI) and the FDNY Mobile Command Post raced to the scene.

Initial reports indicated that five people were unaccounted for. The search was on. Within the first minutes, fire fighters located two of the residents in the rear of the building. They were fortunate enough to have escaped life-threatening injuries. The EMT's and Paramedics of EMS quickly stabilized them and transported them to a nearby hospital. But where were the other three?

Piece by broken piece the building had to be searched. More manpower was going to be needed. Second, third, and fourth alarms soon followed. As Rescue 3 shored up the remaining structure other city agencies began to help.

The NYC Office of Emergency Management arranged for heavy equipment. Sanitation brought in dump trucks to haul away the debris. Environmental Protection turned off water mains to the affected buildings. Consolidated Edison cut power. The NYPD K9 unit assisted in sniffing out survivors, and Keyspan Energy Corporation (now the parent company to Brooklyn Union Gas) checked the gas mains.

Residents of the block had complained earlier in the week of a gas odor in the area. No source was found. As members from engine 226 raced down the block, they noticed a heavy gas odor lingering in the air. When Keyspan arrived they conducted a preliminary investigation from the exterior and said no conclusions could be reached at this time. Obviously as the building fell the gas pipes would have broken thus causing the gas odor. With their current information, there is no way to tell if the gas odor was the cause of the explosion, or an effect of it. The final analysis of the gas service would have to wait until the conclusion of the search and rescue operation.

The search continued through the night. Every 3 hours fresh units were brought in to replace exhausted members. Early the next morning rescuers found an elderly resident beneath the rubble but it was too late. Several hours later another resident was found, but as before it was too late. They were beneath tons of debris. The search continues for one more.

Residents of the normally quiet block are now holding a vigil for the last resident. There is nothing they can do but hope against hope that some miracle will occur.