At 9:13 a.m. on March 12, East Harlem resident Corey Louire called energy company Consolidated Edison and reported that he could smell a heavy odor of gas. Less than 20 minutes later an explosion took down two five-story buildings and blew out windows in the surrounding area, sending debris into the streets and on the tracks of an elevated Metro-North rail line nearby. Residents in 91 apartments in surrounding buildings were evacuated.
Residents told the New York Daily News March 13 that they had complained about strong gas odor in the buildings and made calls to a city hotline to report it, but couldn’t get through. One tenant said she called the night before the blast when the smell was particularly strong and again on the morning of the blast. The media has sought to foist the blame on residents for not taking proper steps to inform the authorities.
“It’s like they think we should be living our lives walking around smelling for gas all the time,” Lenore Garbine, a nurse, told the Militant March 16 outside an Associated grocery store half a block from the collapsed buildings. “I’m really angry. It’s a scandal. People dead and hurt and it’s totally unnecessary. There was no way for people to know or to prepare, like a burst out of the blue.”
Four days after the blast the surrounding blocks were sealed off by cops. They allow shoppers to go to the grocery store on condition they don’t go farther up the street and come back out the same way.
“Look at that rail line, it’s just next to the buildings,” said Adrian Harris, a transit worker, pointing to the elevated track half a block up. “What if a train had passed when the explosion took place? It could have derailed and fallen down. It must be one of the busiest rail lines in the state.”
The New York Times reported that a southbound Metro-North train had just passed the explosion site and according to passengers “shook violently.”
This area in Manhattan is also called Spanish Harlem and traditionally home to many of Latin American descent. Emelie and Reinaldo Ortíz came from Mexico more than 20 years ago and have lived here for 13 years. They talked about the blast while doing their laundry just up the street from the Associated grocery store.
“We weren’t home when it happened,” said Reinaldo, a sanitation worker. “We didn’t smell any gas, so I can’t say I walked around waiting for it to happen. But the more you think about it, the less surprising it is. You see the potholes in the streets, you see the cracks in buildings, you see there is no maintenance to public housing. So why would it be any different with the gas and the electric?”
“I worry, it’s like living on top of a bomb,” said Emelie Ortíz, who works in home care. “But we don’t have enough money to move anywhere better.”
The main pipe running into the East Harlem buildings dates back to 1887 and is partly made of cast iron. According to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, serious leaks are four times more frequent in cast iron pipes than pipes made of other material.
Cast iron pipes are especially common in old, large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. In New York two companies, National Grid and Con Ed, oversee the gas mains across the five boroughs. Fifty percent of National Grid’s gas lines and 60 percent of Con Ed’s are made of cast iron and unprotected steel, another leak-prone material.
Con Ed plans to phase out cast-iron pipes in New York over the next 35 years. A report from federal safety representatives estimates work to phase out cast-iron pipes will be done in Connecticut around 2080, in New York state by 2090 and in Pennsylvania by 2111.
The deadly blast is the latest major consequences of decades of neglect of infrastructure in housing, communications, schools, health and recreation.
According to “Caution Ahead,” a March report from Center for an Urban Future, infrastructure across New York needs to be replaced or repaired at an estimated cost of $47.3 billion in the coming four to five years.
According to the report, 11 percent of the city’s bridges are structurally deficient; city roads outlive their useful life by 20 percent before they are resurfaced or reconstructed; more than 25 percent of the subway mainline signals have exceeded their 50-year life span; and 1,500 of New York City Housing Authority’s 2,600 buildings do not comply with Local Law 11 standard for exterior and façade conditions.
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