When Cecilio Hernandez said goodbye to his wife and daughter on Wednesday morning in East Harlem, he had no clue that their hugs would be his last until they meet again in the after-life. About half an hour later, the family's apartment building and an adjacent building exploded and collapsed. It took the lives of Hernandez's wife, Rosaura Barrios, and his daughter, Rosaura Hernandez, along with the lives of six others.
Now comes the aftermath of burials and pointing fingers at who's to blame. And questions arise about where do we go from here.
Also killed in the explosion were: Griselde Camacho, 45, a Hunter College security officer; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician from Greece; Jordy Salas, 22, a restaurant worker; and Mayumi Nakamura, 34, from Japan.
The ceremony took place in R.G. Ortiz Funeral Home on 116th Street, just two blocks away from the disaster. Funeral services for another victim George Amadeo, a 44-year old handyman who lived on the top floor of one of the buildings, was held at the Church of Saint Raymond Cemetery in the Bronx.
The R.G. Ortiz Funeral Home received a rotating cast of visitors in the six hours it was open from three to nine o'clock in yesterday evening, oscillating from 50 to 90 people at a time. The media waited outside with microphones and cameras in hand, hungry to speak to anyone exiting the funeral home.
Inside, people paid respects to Barrios, 44, and Hernandez, 21, who were in two closed white caskets laid adjacent facing each other. A photo of each woman's smiling face was placed on top of her casket. A kneeling altar about three-feet long bordered Barrios' casket for anyone wishing to pray. Bouquets of white roses and baby's breath decorated the dim-lighted room as some people in the crowd murmured in conversation, a handful wept in muffled sniffles and others sat quietly to themselves.
Although the family attended the Protestant Spanish Christian Church, which lost five members to the blast, the service mixed Protestant and Catholic practices. A more Catholic representation of Jesus nailed on the cross reminded the audience that God identifies with their suffering. A rosary-prayer of Hail Marys and Our Fathers was recited in Spanish.
Such a loss of life was particularly devastating because it was unforeseen. Unlike a terminal illness in which the victim has X amount of time to live, the deaths from accidents highlighted the fragility of life, that at any moment any one of us can have the rug pulled from underneath. This sentiment ran strong among those people who narrowly escaped death in the blast. An ordinary morning turned into a great lesson about loss and making the best of the future.
After dropping off their four-year old daughter to school, Mr. Hernandez was on his way to work when the explosion took place. His wife Barrios also worked in a restaurant. The couple were Mexcian immigrants giving their family a shot at the American Dream. Indeed, the future here in New York City looked good. Ms. Hernandez, their daughter, graduated from Star Career Academy culinary school in Chelsea and interned at the Triomphe restaurant at the Iroquois Hotel in Midtown. Her progress was the family’s pride and joy. Their fifteen-year old son remains in Harlem Hospital in serious condition. The intricacies of the family’s feelings for each other are left as a gossamer of memories.
Overhearing a conversation regarding how to distinguish the identical names of mother and daughter, Mr. Hernandez with a pale, grieving face tapped a person on the shoulder and deftly touched on how the family identified generations. He recalled, “We called the younger one 'Rosie.'” His voice wavered at the realness of the memory of young Rosie and motherly Rosaura.
The Consulate General of Mexico will help with the earthly logistics by providing money for the two bodies to be sent to Mexico for burial. The mother was from the small village of San Francisco Cuautlancingo of the municipality of Ciudad Cerdan in the state of Puebla in southern part of Mexico.
Here in New York City, fellow congregants of the Hernandez family ask that donations for Spanish Christian Church and its ministry to fellow victims be given to a fund that has been set up online. The goal is to raise $250,000 by May 1st.
Who is to blame?
About an hour before the funeral opened, a press conference took place in the office of Wigdor LLP with Douglas Wigdor representing victims of other gas explosions. Pastor Bill Devlin of Infinity Bible Church in the Bronx was also one of the spokesmen at the conference and is coordinating prayer vigils for the neighborhood.
Along with The Cochran Firm, which sent a managing partner, Derek Sells, to the conference, the two law firms represent victims of previous utility-related accidents in New York City over the years. The press conference hopes that East Harlem Explosion will pressure Con Edison to fix their infrastructure of 6,000 miles of corroding pipes, some nearly 125 years old.
“Just yesterday, we learned that the National Transportation Safety Board did a pressure test of the pipe—the pipe that was over 100 years old, outside the building—and concluded that it had failed,” said Wigdor.
The NTSB plans on excavating the gas main near the leak, which dates back to 1887 and produced with cast iron. However, investigators caution that they are not close to a conclusion about what caused the blast. “We don't determine the probable cause until the very, very end," board spokesman Eric Weiss said.
At the conference, seven family members of victims of previous gas-related accidents also spoke. Joe Oza lost his mother, Kunta Oza, in 2007 when her home in Sunnyside, Queens exploded in an incident similar to the one in East Harlem. He indicated that he now lived with a fear that he has had a hard time discarding, saying, “When someone says they smell gas, we get very scared and run out of the apartment.”
When asked if the law firms have been in touch with any of the victims' families, Wigdor replied, “We cannot discuss communications with potential clients or any clients.”
Devlin interjected into the discussion a moment of silence that lasted 30 seconds. “This is for families that lost loved ones and other East Harlem victims,” he said to the pile of microphones before closing his eyes and bowing his head.
The end is just the beginning
In the meantime, multiple agencies are trying to figure out what went wrong. The National Transportation Safety Board has set up a makeshift office on the first floor of a building on 116th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. Detailed posters of the collapse show aerial views and which buildings in the area are occupied versus evacuated.
“This is a crime site, so we're treating this as a crime site,” said Michael Callaghan, Fire Marshal at the Bureau of Fire Investigation, during a conversation in front of where the buildings used to be.
For the sake of the memories of Barrios and Hernandez, along with those of the other victims, their passings might push along a change-over to a safer distribution of energy for New Yorkers. To that end, after the conference, the lawyers Wigdor and Sells attended the funeral of Barrios and Hernandez.
Sitting in one of the last rows, the lawyer Wigdor asked with a note of tongue-in-cheek, “Do you think there's anyone here from Con Edison?”
For the faith community in New York City, bearing one another's burdens has become more real than ever. Many faith groups have visited the sites and volunteered to help out. On a hopeful note Devlin said that the disaster could cause a sense of compassion to radiate throughout the city. That is one reason that he and the other pastors have seen their vigil and work as chaplains as a duty both to the victims and to the city. “Incidents like this are like a hub of a wheel. Our goal is that we clergy are like the spokes of the wheel coming out to every borough.” The hope is that an end might also be a new beginning.
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