Could the East Harlem Explosion Lead to a Conversation on Neglect?

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According to residents the deadly explosion didn’t have to happen. Earlier today two buildings at 1644-1646 Park Avenue near 116th Street in El Barrio/ East Harlem exploded and collapsed from a gas leak, as reported by the Daily News and other outlets. 

The force from the explosion could be detected as far as two miles west, according to a Columbia University seismic scale.

“The sound was as if something insanely heavy fell, followed by what felt like a sideways earthquake,” Yosenex Orengo, an employee at a research institution several blocks away, told La Respuesta magazine.

Local institutions were also affected. The Spanish Christian Church and music shop Absolute Piano collapsed in the explosion, along with 15 residential apartment units, according to The New York Times.

At press time, various media outlet report that six people are confirmed dead, with dozens injured and missing.

The first casualty reported was Sgt. Griselde Camacho, a law enforcement officer in the Public Safety Department at the nearby Hunter College School of Social Work. I knew her personally, having worked briefly at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library & Archives located at the college–she identified as a proud Nuyorican.

“She was a phenomenal leader and a great person to share the day with,” Juan Papo Santiago, an employee at Hunter College, told La Respuesta. She is survived by her hospitalized mother and son.

La Respuesta also spoke with Andrew J. Padilla, creator of the documentary El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem. Born and raised in the neighborhood, he stated that the deadly explosion was “heartbreaking but not surprising.” With media attention focusing on the unfortunate loss of life and missing persons, Padilla pointed out that the real issue of housing negligence by landlords and property owners would not have received as much attention without the tragedy.

“Problems are still taking place,” Padilla said. “Landlords are still negligent, and the city too. They’re not making sure tenants are in a safe and livable environment. Landlords are not taking care of the most vulnerable immigrants who can’t speak out. I hope this leads to conversations about the structural problems. If a huge explosion like this can’t get us to talk about that, then I don’t know what else will.”

An article on the explosion published by El Diario/ La Prensa highlights the Mexican, Ecuadorian and Dominican victims of the tragedy. They also posted another piece claiming that residents smelled gas days prior to the explosion.

However, NY1 reports that Con Edison did not receive a gas complaint until 18 minutes before the explosion. In the same article, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated that they intend to “look at Con Edison’s integrity management system,” as well as the role played by the age of the cast iron piping, which dates back to 1887. In fact, earlier in the morning, a NTSB official stated that his office held a briefing on another accident involving cast iron piping in Allentown, Pa.

In the coming days the city may look to improve its physical structure, but can it address the social structures that may also lead to tragedies such as this one, as discussed by Padilla and New York City residents via twitter (below, along with condolences)?

[Slideshow photo from Molly Mills,]

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