Police arrested five people in connection with the gas explosion that rocked Second Avenue last spring and brought down three buildings. The tragedy, which killed two men, seriously injured 13 people and obliterated hundreds of peoples’ homes, is said to have been caused by an illegal gas hookup guarded in a secret room in the basement of the building’s sushi restaurant, locked and inaccessible to restaurant workers or ConEd inspectors.
This morning the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged owner Maria Hrynenko; her son and the building’s manger, Michael Jr.; Dilber Kukic, the building’s contractor; and plumber Jerry Ioannidis with second-degree manslaughter, negligent homicide, second-degree assault and reckless endangerment. Andrew Trombettas was taken into custody for a lesser charge for illegally providing Ioannidis with his false license.
Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, made clear that the explosion was not a simple accident, but the result of pre-meditated decisions to cut corners around building regulations.
“Development, construction and renovation is happening all across New York City. We know it’s been at a breakneck speed,” Vance said. “Incentives for property owners, contractors and managers to take shortcuts has never been stronger.”
Vance outlined the circumstances that led to the explosion at the five-story tenement building on 121 Second Avenue, which also reduced 119 and 123 Second Avenue to rubble. According to their investigation, the Hrynenkos hired Kukic as a contractor in 2013 to renovate 121. Kukic then hired Ioannidis, an unlicensed plumber.
By June 2014 renovations were complete, but ConEd still had not approved installations for gas meters in the building. “Having just invested in the renovations, the Hrynenkos wanted to begin renting the apartments as soon as possible,” said Vance, adding that the units rented for an average of $6,000 a month. “The only thing that was holding them up was lack of gas to the apartments.”
So they apparently came up with a shortcut. At first, Ionnadis allegedly ran four flexible hoses from the basement of the building’s sushi restaurant at 121 up to the apartments. Vance said flex hoses were illegal in these situations because they are highly volatile and dangerous, prone to disconnect, break or leak.
When ConEd discovered the setup a month later and shut off the gas supply, the group didn’t hire a licensed plumber to fix it but simply moved on to a new shortcut, he said. They allegedly rigged a series of pipes and valves in a hidden utility room in the back of the basement to siphon gas from 191 Second Avenue next door, also owned by Hrynenko.
They planned to use this set-up temporarily until ConEd returned seven months later on March 26, 2015 to approve a new meter in 121. But on that day, Kukic and Ioannidis had to make some adjustments to avoid tipping ConEd off to their illegal arrangement– by this point none of the apartments in the building had ever been authorized to receive gas. So the two men allegedly shut off the illegal gas supply at 119 and told a tenant upstairs to tell ConEd they had never had any gas.
Then the men also opened a series of valves they had installed in 121 to bring the gas up to the apartments, Vance said. “They opened those valves because if ConEd were to perform a building wide pressure test during the inspection, the only way to pass the test and keep the illegal system in the back of the room hidden and undetected was to make sure the valves were open and that gas was able to come up to the apartments,” the DA explained.
At 2 p.m. ConEd arrived and rejected the installation of a new meter in the basement of 121. They left the building soon after and Kukic and Ioannidis went back to 119 to turn the gas back on so the apartments would be connected again. But they forgot one crucial thing– to close the valves in the secret utility closest.
Things happened fast after that. At 3 p.m. a sushi worker smelled gas and notified Hrynenko. Vance said Kukic and Michael Hyrnenko “went down to the basement, smelled the gas, and then sprinted out of the building without alerting people in the restaurant.” They didn’t call 911 or attempt to evacuate the restaurant. Within minutes, the gas ignited and the building exploded, killing both Moises Ismael Locon Yac, a busboy from Guatemala, and Nicholas Figueroa, a recent graduate from SUNY Buffalo. Other injuries included permanent blindness, career-ending fractures, and punctured lungs.
The defendants will be arraigned this afternoon at 2:15 p.m. A second-degree manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
“Our message to the contractors, property owners and managers is simply this: They have to resist temptation to take these shortcuts,” said Vance. “When you are responsible for the construction renovation and the powering of buildings you are responsible for handling dangerous instruments, and when you tinker around with the gas systems the electrical hookups, as happened here, you have in effect, weaponized that building and that power system, and you could be held, as here, accountable for the harm you inflict.”
In a statement, Mayor De Blasio said, “The individuals involved in the East Village gas explosion showed a blatant and callous disregard for human life. We are heartened that today these defendants will be brought to justice and forced to answer for their criminal actions.”