Nicholas Figueroa was a bowling alley employee out for a lunch date with a co-worker. Moises Ismael Locón Yac was a busboy with plans to return to his home in Guatemala, where a girlfriend was waiting for him. Both had been missing since Thursday afternoon, when a violent explosion and fire tore through Sushi Park, the restaurant where they were eating and working, and transformed a block of Manhattan’s East Village into a disaster site.
The chances that they had survived were slim, Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito acknowledged Saturday, as the scramble to save the living and subdue the fire that leveled three buildings turned into a grim search for the dead. Piles of debris were scooped up by heavy machinery and then dumped onto the street, where rescue workers combed through the heaps of brick and ash with rakes. Specially trained dogs were sent into the rubble to sniff for human remains.
But relatives held out hope. Locón’s three siblings trekked endlessly up and down the surrounding streets, frantically seeking a sign of their 26-year-old brother. On Sunday afternoon, even as firefighters worked to pull two bodies from the wreckage, Figueroa’s brother called for him to come home.
“We’re here for you! Don’t give up!” Neal Figueroa shouted as he clambered onto a police barrier and tossed a white rose toward the debris.
The four-day vigil came to its worst possible end Sunday evening, when Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro announced that “everyone who was reported missing has been found,” implying that the bodies belonged to Figueroa and Locón. Separately, a spokesman for Figueroa’s family confirmed that Nicholas, 23, was among those found amid the rubble.
As of Sunday, 125 adults and five children from the area around the explosion had registered for Red Cross services, according to an inter-agency update. The four people who had been hospitalized at the Bellevue Trauma Center were either discharged or in good condition.
No one else has been reported missing, and the FDNY doesn’t expect any additional victims at the site, Nigro said Sunday. Officials are now turning to their attention to the cause of the explosion.
The investigation focuses on the gas line at 121 Second Avenue, home to Sushi Park and several tenants. The line may have been illegally tapped to provide gas for the restaurant’s upstairs neighbors.
“There is a possibility here that the gas line was inappropriately accessed internally,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference, though he declined to go into detail.
Philip O’Brien, a spokesman for the New York gas and electric company, Consolidated Edison, told the New York Times that the building’s gas line had been dangerously tapped seven months before. On Aug. 6, utility workers found leaks in the hoses connected to the line, which created a “hazardous situation.”
Sushi Park owner Hyeonil Kim told the Times he had reported smelling gas in his restaurant’s basement, prompting the August inspection. He suspected that gas meant for his restaurant was being illegally siphoned off to provide for apartments upstairs, which had been newly renovated and rented out. Kim, who speaks Korean, didn’t understand the utility company’s explanation of the problem, so he contacted his landlord, Maria Hrynenko. Afterward, he often checked to make sure that his gas line wasn’t being tampered with. It wasn’t, but it remained unclear how the other residents were getting gas.
“I don’t believe that there was no gas at 121 during this winter season,” Kim told the Times, speaking in Korean. “Somehow they got the gas, but how?”
Kim suspected that Hrynenko was instead drawing gas from the adjacent building at 119 Second Avenue, which she also owns.
Con Ed inspectors returned to the building Thursday to check on the installation of a larger gas line, which would have provided enough gas to supply the upstairs apartments, Con Ed Vice President for Emergency Management Carlos Torres said. They found that the plumber who installed the new line had failed to leave enough space for a meter, so they left without unlocking a valve that would redirect gas through the larger pipe. The two inspectors found no signs of a gas leak, according to Torres, and in a statement released Thursday the utility company said it hadn’t received reports of gas smells in the area before the explosion.
But around 3 p.m., shortly after the Con Ed workers left, someone from Sushi Park did smell something — a rotten eggs odor added to natural gas to make it recognizable. Kim called Hrynenko to report the odor, and she sent her son Michael and a contractor, Dilber Kukic, to investigate. No one contacted Con Ed or 911.
“As soon as we opened the basement door, there was an explosion, a fire,” Kukic said in a phone interview with the Web site DNAinfo while being treated at New York Presbyterian Hospital. “It was full of smoke. The debris was on top of me.”
In the seconds after the explosion, the contractor picked up the unconscious Michael Hrynenko and carried him outside. Hrynenko is also being treated at New York Presbyterian, Kukic said.
Kukic, a general contractor for the Bronx-based firm Neighborhood Construction, was arrested a month ago on unrelated bribery charges. He was charged with paying $600 to an undercover investigator posing as a Department of Housing Preservation and Development employee to dismiss two violations at a property he owned.
He had previously done plumbing and partition wall work at 121 Second Avenue, he told DNAinfo, but he had never worked in the building’s basement. New York Police Department Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said in a news conference Friday that Kukic had hired a subcontractor to do some work on the building as well. Kukic is not under investigation in connection with the explosion, Boyce said, and he has been “very helpful” to the police so far.
Kim, the owner of Sushi Park, said some people are blaming him for not calling 911.
“But who would call 911 when you know there is plumbing work going on?” he told the New York Times. “Asking the landlord what was going on would be the best way to handle the situation.”
While city officials investigate, the neighborhood around the three collapsed buildings mourns the people and the homes they lost. Kim could barely speak about Locón, the Sushi Park busboy and Guatemalan immigrant who is presumed dead.
“Everything I lost is just lost, nothing I can do about it,” he told the New York Times. “But this friend —.” Kim broke off, overcome by sobs.
Michael Schumacher, who co-owns a nearby grocery store, also teared up while talking about Locón.
“I saw that young man every day,” he told the New York Daily News. “Every single day we had a chat — you know, ‘How’s business?’ The kid worked hard for his family. He’s gone. He’s gone.”
“We’ll never get back what we had,” Schumacher added. “Some of our friends have been lost. Some of our friends are displaced forever.”
Residents have also tried to fend off the crowds that have come to look at the rubble. A local blog flagged an image of a group of women taking a picture with a selfie stick not far from the site of the explosion. The photo became the New York Post’s Sunday cover story, printed with the headline “Village Idiots.”
Neighbors posted signs on a nearby door: “This is a tragedy, not a tourist attraction,” one read. “Show some respect.”
Despite the gapers, the atmosphere in the neighborhood has been one of grief and quiet gratitude. At a cafe on nearby Sixth Street, displaced residents gathered around tables and talked about the belongings they’d left behind. A dozen firefighters were given a standing ovation at Middle Collegiate Church’s Palm Sunday service. “We’re honored to have you in this place,” the Rev. Jacqui Lewis said. The three collapsed buildings are visible from the church’s stone entrance.
Sarbjit Bring, whose family owns a bodega that was destroyed in the seven-alarm fire, despaired over the smoldering wreckage of the shop that had been her livelihood.
“I have no money,” she said. “Everything is my store.”
But her 22-year-old son, Chas, took comfort in his family’s survival.
“It’s just material objects. They come and go,” he said. “We still have our lives.”