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Burned out tenants seek Red Cross help

City fire officials combed through the remains of a gutted Flushing apartment building this week, trying to determine what caused an apparent gas explosion that injured 17 and left dozens homeless Friday afternoon.

Nearly half of the 147-25 Sanford Ave. apartment building's residents have been forced to take refuge in nearby hotels after being barred from their homes, some of which have been virtually destroyed.

Building Manager David Pace said 37 of the apartments in the 90-unit building were deemed uninhabitable by the city Department of Buildings, "30 [percent] to 40 percent" of which may require extensive renovations that could keep people out of their apartments for months.

The Red Cross of Greater New York said residents from 53 apartments in the building had registered for emergency disaster assistance, many of whom are being housed in nearby hotels while the city investigates the building damage.

FDNY fire marshals were still investigating the cause of the explosion by press time Tuesday evening, but some officials were already calling for an independent probe of the event, which occurred after more than a month of gas-related problems in the building.

Shortly before 4:30 p.m. Friday an explosion ripped through the second and third floors of the 90-unit Fairmont Hall, just minutes after Con Edison had turned on the gas to some of the building's apartments for the first time in a month.

"I just heard a big boom and saw all these ACs and fans flying down," said resident Sebastian Celestin, who was leaving the building to meet his girlfriend at the time of the blast. "That's when we heard all the screaming. People were coming down trying to escape off the fire escapes."

"It was like a war zone," another resident said.

Authorities said Edgar Zaldumbide and his 23-month-old daughter, Melissa, were rushed to Manhattan's New York Presbyterian Hospital, where they were in critical but stable condition as of Tuesday.

Zaldumbide suffered severe burns to more than 75 percent of his body and was placed in a medically induced coma as a result of his injuries, according to authorities.

Fourteen others, including six firefighters, sustained non-life threatening injuries, fire officials said.

"There are indications from residents that somebody should have known that there was stray gas. The answers will soon become clear," said City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing). "But based on what residents are saying, someone fell asleep in a really bad way to the point where the negligence could be at the criminal level."

The problems at Fairmont Hall began June 11, after a small kitchen fire in a second-floor apartment damaged gas lines in the building. Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert said gas and hot water were shut down at the building after the fire while repairs were made.

Residents were without hot water until June 24 and without gas until last week, according to Con Edison and city Buildings Department records, leading a group of residents to threaten a rent strike in early July until the repairs were made.

Olert said last week Con Ed received notification that the repairs had been made and restored gas to one of the building's 14 gas "risers," smaller gas lines that connect to a main line, on July 22.

Second floor resident Bellanira Sanchez said she called Con Ed after smelling the strong odor of gas in her neighbor's apartment that afternoon.

"I've been concerned about the gas line and everybody's safety and my safety," she said. "I was worried that there might be an explosion."

Con Ed returned Friday, and working alongside plumbers from Liberty Plumbing and Heating Inc., hired by the building's owner, All Wall Construction Corp., restored gas service to six more risers by 4:13 p.m.

Eleven minutes later, the explosion occurred. Olert confirmed that apartment 2P, where the incident originated, was one of the apartments where gas had been restored, but said pressure gauge tests conducted prior to Con Ed workers leaving the building indicated that no leaks were present and the lines were safe.

"When we left there were no leaks. If there had been a leak, we would not have turned the gas back on in the building," Olert said.

Calls to Liberty Heating and Plumbing, which made the repairs to the gas pipes according to DOB records, were not returned by press time.

Pace said he is fully cooperating with the FDNY on its investigation and is "doing everything he can" to make sure his residents are accommodated.

"There's a small pocket of tenants that have been very negative towards the whole procedure, the whole process since the June 11 fire, which I can totally understand," Pace said. "I would say 80 percent of the people have been very understanding and know that we are doing everything we can to get them back here and make this right."

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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