Hugging a weeping couple in his arms, a pastor canopied his shoulders over their slightly bowed heads. A few feet away, a man's scrunched up face barely hid his puffy and red eyes. People held hands and some locked arms. Another pastor lightly placed his palm on a person's back to comfort the grief that spilled out in low-toned wailings.
The crowd of about 20 people was composed of clergy, politicians, and loved ones of victims of the two collapsed buildings on 116th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. Fire officials confirmed at least eight dead and dozens injured from the gas ignited explosion that occurred Wednesday morning. Some bodies were so badly burned that they could not be positively identified.
About twenty-four hours after the catastrophe, clergy gathered a prayer vigil across the street from the fallen buildings. They encouraged the victims’ loved ones by announcing a plan to establish a fund drawing from monies taken up during church collections this next Sunday. The planners emphasized that their priority was helping the victims.
"One hundred percent of the donations will go to you all," said Carrie Mobley, Director of Faith-Based Initiatives at the New York State Senate. "It is not for administrative purposes and not for this and not for that, but towards you all." A central depository for the funds has not yet been set up, but they are working with the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's office to do so. They promised to pass on additional information as soon as possible.
The ten minute meeting took place on the first floor of a room that was still in construction and bare from furnishings. The walls lacked of paint and some spots exposed electrical cables. It was not open to the media. Across the street buildings had collapsed and others heavily damaged, but here there was an emphasis on rebuilding.
Among those present was Rev. Thomas Perez of Spanish Christian Church. The blast killed at least five members, injured others, and destroyed his church, whose sanctuary was on the ground floor of 1644 Park Avenue. The congregation recently celebrated their 80th anniversary, and the building housed approximately a third of the church's 60-person congregation. This staggering blow was felt through their extended network that reaches from the tight network of friends and families in the neighborhood to New Jersey, Florida, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and elsewhere. A disaster concentrated on one social network like this is like a sledgehammer hitting a drum. At the center is brokenness.
"God is getting me through this," said Perez reported by the New York Times.
During the prayer meeting, the pastor’s face slightly trembled still in shock.
Congressman Charles B. Rangel showed solidarity with his presence, but did not speak during the prayer gathering. Rangel, who called the incident "our community's 9/11," is currently in a close race for his 23rd reelection. His opponent is Albany Democrats-backed Adriano Espaillat.
Rev. Lisa Jenkins of St. Matthew's Baptist Church led the prayer. "We ask right now to comfort these families who gather here today," Jenkins said with her eyes tightly closed. "We ask the Holy Spirit to come in like a flood and comfort their minds that they might be able to withstand these next few days." Jenkins, a single mother of a college age student, is the first female pastor of St. Matthew's 88-year history and sits on Community Board 10.
After praying, the clergy gathered outside the building to walk down to the corner of 116th Street and Lexington Avenue and speak to members of the press. They linked up arm in arm with white dust masks on their faces.
Those grieving stayed behind. "The families are in great distress," said Rev. Troy Decohen, a board member of the denomination United Church of Christ and pastor of Mount Vernon Heights Congregational Church. "They couldn't march out with us because there are in so much grief."
Several church congregations in the East Harlem were affected because they have congregants who were killed or injured. Consequently, some clergy and members of these congregations have been on site since yesterday morning.
Pastor Gordon Williams of Bethel Gospel Assembly mentioned that victims Griselde Camacho, 44 and a campus security officer who worked at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, and Carmen Tanco, 67 and a dental hygienist, also attended his church. His senior pastor, Carlton Brown, was on site yesterday.
Shaken but determined, the clergy turned off Lexington Avenue after speaking to the press and walked away together in their dust masks west along 116th Street.
The New York Times published on March 15th a report about the recovery of the Spanish Christian Church's Bible:
"Over three grim and grueling days of digging through the rubble of two East Harlem buildings annihilated in a gas explosion, rescue workers uncovered eight bodies and a catalog of ruined lives. On Saturday, though, they also discovered a small, but precious treasure.
Buried among the scorched debris, firefighters found a Bible belonging to the Spanish Christian Church, which occupied the basement and ground floor in 1644 Park Avenue, one of the buildings destroyed. Though dust-covered and crumpled, the Bible was largely intact, a gold inscription on its spine reading “Santa Biblia.”
When firefighters presented the Bible, the church’s 83-year-old pastor, the Rev. Thomas Perez, who had often stood vigil over the blast site these past days, was overcome. Mr. Perez, who arrived near the site to lead a small prayer gathering, experienced chest pains, witnesses said, and was taken away by an ambulance.
In a news conference, Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano of the Fire Department said that Mr. Perez was recovering at Lenox Hill Hospital. ...
“We were very proud to get that back for him,” Mr. Cassano said, referring to the Bible. ...
Kat Ferrara, 64, a retired pet nutritionist who lived in a second-floor apartment in 1652 Park Avenue, said that though she had not been able to get back into her building to gather clothing or other belongings, she was grateful.
“You think about what happened to those people and you can’t help but believe that we’re still here by the grace of God,” she said.
Near the blast site, the planned prayer gathering went on after Mr. Perez was taken away in the ambulance. The Rev. Vernon Williams, who is not a member of the Spanish Christian Church but participated in the gathering, held the Bible in his hands. “The word is preserved,” he shouted."
Where to get help and how to help
►Pastors and other faith leaders and their congregants gather at 12 N Saturday at Lexington Avenue and 116th St. Check-in with Community Affairs Officer Collado, NYPD for directions to 108 E. 116th St Third Floor prayer gathering.
► Friends and relatives looking for information about missing people can call 311 and ask for the "Unified Victim Identification System" or dial (212) 639-9675, officials said. (No one will be asked about their immigration status during the call or subsequent updates, officials said)
► Those concerned about their kids during a disaster can get safety tips from the Department of Health.
► Those who were affected by the explosion can visit the Salvation Army at 175 W. 125th St., near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, for information and services. The center will stay open until 9 p.m. Thursday and reopen Friday at 8 a.m., according to the Office of Emergency Management.
► The Salvation Army is also housing a shelter where displaced residents can stay temporarily. Residents can register there for longer-term emergency housing in the area, the Red Cross said.
Salvation Army also runs:
- East Harlem Soup Kitchen Program: Volunteers to help serve meals, greet and speak with guests, assist with clean-