The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Owners in ‘total disbelief’ after man sets fire to LGBTQ bar with staff inside

Rash was set fire April 3. Video footage shows a man dumping gas inside the Brooklyn bar before lighting a flame. (Courtesy of Claire Bendiner)
Placeholder while article actions load

Claire Bendiner had just stepped out of their Brooklyn bar on Sunday night when they suddenly heard chilling screams coming from employees inside the building. They turned around and saw the nightclub engulfed in flames.

“There was a second where I was in total disbelief,” said Bendiner, who uses they/them pronouns. “I was like, ‘This isn’t possibly what I’m actually seeing.’ ”

Bendiner, a co-owner of the bar Rash, then sprang into action, calling 911 and making sure people who lived in the apartments upstairs evacuated the building. The fire department arrived quickly, and two of the three people who were inside were sent to the hospital with cuts and burns, Bendiner said. One was released on Wednesday, they added.

Security camera footage released by the New York City Police Department on Wednesday shows a man wearing a backpack and a hoodie smoking a cigarette inside the bar about 9:20 p.m. as he dumped a canister of gas along the ramp that goes down the dance floor. He then tossed what appeared to be his cigarette, leaned down and lit the puddle of flammable liquid on fire, the video shows.

Bendiner, 32, doesn’t know why Rash was targeted. The man — whom police describe as 5 feet 9 inches tall, 180 pounds, and between 20 and 30 years old — could have been a disgruntled customer or a “total lunatic,” Bendiner said. But they suspect Rash might have been chosen because it’s known as a space for the LGBTQ community.

“There’s a decent chance that it’s because of that — that it’s a hate crime,” Bendiner said.

The investigation is ongoing, and the NYPD has not said whether the case is being pursued as a hate crime. Police are offering a reward up to $3,500 for information about the suspect.

Bendiner and their co-owner, Jake Sillen, opened Rash in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn in October. The nightclub often features DJs and draws large crowds for dancing. But it was quiet inside the bar on Sunday night. About 9:20 p.m., Bendiner joined a customer and a bartender who were having cigarettes outside. Left inside were a second bartender, a DJ and a security guard.

Moments after Bendiner left the bar, the security guard, who was standing near a side door, noticed a man pouring liquid onto the floor, Bendiner said. The guard asked him what he was doing, and the man responded saying it was water and that he was a cleaner.

Then he lit the puddle on fire.

Bendiner saw the employees running out of the building. The DJ and the bartender both had burns on their backs and shoulders. The bartender, who was released from the hospital on Wednesday, was also left with a slash across her face, possibly from falling as she tried to escape. The DJ is still in the hospital, according to Bendiner.

The man with the gas canister fled the scene, police said.

Bendiner said they are still trying to process what happened that night and how they narrowly missed being caught in the flames. They also wonder whether they could have been able to stop the man before he started the fire.

“But I have no real way of knowing,” Bendiner said.

Had the man come two hours later, when there probably would have been a large crowd on the dance floor, “it would have been a horror scene,” they said.

Bendiner and Sillen have been dealing with overwhelming anxiety and sadness since the incident. Sudden sounds make Bendiner jump.

“I don’t want to go to sleep in case the whole place is about to go up in flames while I’m asleep,” they said. “I feel like since he’s still out there, it’s hard to feel safe in any space, really, until he’s off the streets.”

The fire left severe damage inside the nightclub. Bendiner said Rash will need extensive repairs.

“It’s devastating,” Bendiner said.

Bendiner and Sillen set up a GoFundMe campaign asking people to donate to support the restoration and to pay for medical bills and other expenses for staffers who are now out of jobs. As of early Friday, Rash had raised over $81,000.

“We’ve gotten people helping from all over the world — not just from Bushwick and New York, which is amazing to see,” Bendiner said.