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Anger, suspicion follow explosion

Mired in anguish and anger, several residents of the 37 apartments damaged by Friday's gas explosion on Sanford Avenue said they have been left in the dark by the city and the property manager, who have taken control of their gutted building.

"They just came into the building and packed up everything and are taking it to the Dumpster," Sultan Faiz, a resident of unit 2A, said Wednesday.

"This is 17 years worth of family belongings, my wife's family jewelry, everything," he said. "I don't know what they're doing—even if they could just make note of what they're doing or throwing out, but they don't tell me anything and they won't allow us back in."

Bellanira Sanchez, the building's tenant association leader, and City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) say the city and the building owner have barred residents from their homes while workers have been seen throwing out personal property. Liu said a member of his office found a tenant's passport in a pile of debris created by workers in the building.

David Pace, the building's manager, said he has been at the building every day sifting through personal effects that were not destroyed in the fire.

"I've been spending yesterday and today just getting people's passports or photos, anything I can find," Pace said Tuesday . "It's amazing. There are men here that you go in there and you bring them a book and they start crying."

Liu, who held a news conference outside the building Wednesday morning, said the tenants were being overlooked.

"It has been five long days for the residents of this building. They have not been contacted by any city agencies. Nobody has told them what is going on. Nobody has told them when they can return to their apartments or what is happening to their belongings," Liu said. "This has got to stop, it is absolutely wrong. These residents have had their belongings thrown out. We cannot allow this to continue in this community."

Pace said that the city Department of Environmental Protection had deemed the 37 damaged apartments contaminated with asbestos and therefore inaccessible to residents. The DEP could not be reached for comment by press time.

"The city loves to point fingers and say its their fault. It's somebody else's fault," said state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone). "I think it's time for the agencies to look in the mirror."

Pace he said he hoped some residents whose apartments only sustained minor damage would be able to return within the coming weeks, but he estimated that between 15 and 20 of the apartments would take months to repair.

Pace said he understands that people are angry, but said he has done "all he can" to address the situation both before and after the explosion.

While several tenants applauded Pace's commitment to retrieving possessions for them Wednesday, others remained frustrated with the building's ownership.

"They don't communicate with us, they don't tell us nothing. They are not cooperative," third floor resident Lisette Alejandro said. "They should not have put people in danger like this."

After providing temporary housing to dislocated residents in nearby JHS 189 on Barclay Avenue, the Red Cross said those who are not staying with relatives have been moved to area hotels until city officials determine they can return. Liu said he would work with the Red Cross and the city to guarantee long-term housing for displaced residents, should they need it.

Residents who need help relocating or require other emergency assistance are asked to call 1-877-REDCROSS or Liu's office at 718-888-8747. Liu said victims of the explosion can also visit his office at 135-27 38th Ave., Suite 388 in Flushing.

Reporter Ivan Pereira contributed to this article. Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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