Fiery disaster on 2nd Ave. galvanized a community

This past Saturday marked the anniversary of the horrific gas explosion that tore a hole in the heart of the East Village. This foreseeable and preventable disaster caused so much suffering. It took two young lives, leveled three residential buildings, displaced numerous people and slammed local businesses that were in the immediate blast zone and surrounding area.

This February, the first step toward justice being served for this crime occurred when four people were indicted for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in connection with the explosion and the raging inferno it sparked.

Maria Hrynenko, who owns 121 Second Ave. where the blast occurred, her son Michael Hrynenko, contractor Dilber Kukic and plumber Athanasios “Jerry” Ioannidis were also charged with assault in the second degree. In addition, Andrew Trombettas was charged with “renting” his master plumbing license to Ioannidis, so that the latter could get work on the property approved, according to the Manhattan district attorney.

The defendants allegedly set up an elaborate illegal gas line to siphon gas to upstairs residential apartments. When the jury-rigged system was first discovered by inspectors, the gas was shut off. But the “Gas House Gang” then foolhardily and arrogantly allegedly set up a similar system — but this time hid it behind a closed door so that inspectors could not see it. We all know the results of March 26, 2015: Three empty lots surrounded by a chain-link fence on which hang photos of Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Locón, two young men who had barely begun to live their lives.

On Saturday, local politicians, led by Councilmember Rosie Mendez, held a Day of Remembrance at the site, and noted that a package of nine bills is pending in the council that will tighten up notifications and regulations around gas shut-offs, among other things. In addition, state Senator Brad Hoylman noted that one of the lots is already on the market for $10 million. Hoylman said he plans to introduce legislation in Albany, similar to the Son of Sam Law, to block landlords from reaping profit from their property after perpetrating such crimes. As the politicians declared, cutting corners and “putting profits over people” will not be tolerated — nor financially rewarded.

Under current law, though, the three adjoining lots at the corner of Second Ave. and E. Seventh St. are now no longer under the rent-stabilization system — since the former buildings are gone — so new market-rate housing could be built there. Former tenants charged that Maria Hrynenko — like so many landlords in today’s red-hot Manhattan real estate market — clearly wanted rent-regulated tenants out, so that she could charge top dollar. The gas siphoning was just another way to shave off some money and increase profits — yet while ignoring the grave risk it posed to people’s lives. Of course, had the explosion occurred at a different time of day, the casualties could have been much worse.

Out of the explosion’s ashes, however, the East Village community rallied to the victims’ aid. Early on, local restaurants pitched in with free meals. Immense thanks is due to LES Ready, a coalition of 40 groups ranging from the Red Cross to Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), which funneled at least $200,000 — much of that coming from the Mayor’s Fund — to the victims, and helped them in countless ways, such as providing gift cards to IKEA, Sleepy’s and Lowe’s, so that the victims could get new beds and furnishings and try to rebuild their lives.

Also stepping into the breach was writer Alan Kaufman, who organized a benefit concert at Lorcan Otway’s Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place, headlined by rock legends Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, that raised $50,000. Kaufman gave the cash to LES Ready to disburse to the victims.

According to Ayo Harrington, who coordinated the LES Ready effort, about one-third of the tenants displaced by the blast have moved out of Manhattan or out of state altogether. Another third — largely young professionals who were already living with roommates — have relocated around the Downtown area and are in similar living situations. Another third are still living nearby on E. Third and E. Fourth Sts. in temporary housing made available by Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association.

In short, this catastrophe is a tragic symbol for what is happening on so many levels in the East Village and elsewhere, as landlords, blinded by their own greed, are literally wrecking lives. Justice must be served in this case. Too much damage and suffering was caused — far, far too much — for anyone to get off with a slap on the wrist. Harsh sentences will put landlords on notice that they will be held accountable.

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