DISASTER IN NORTH ROCKLAND

BY SHERLY JOURDAIN

PHOTOS BY THOMAS MCGUIRE

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 16, a condominum at 52 Zariello Lane in the Village of West Haverstraw exploded around 12:57 p.m., after a Verizon contractor had hit a gas main earlier while digging along Zariello Lane and Komonchak Circle.

The explosion resulted in injuries to eight people, six of them being firefighters. Firefighters Kenneth Patterson and Gerald Knapp were transported to Westchester Medical Center after being thrown dozens of feet by the blast which occurred as they were preparing to break down the door of the very house that exploded.

Residents gathered around the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts along Route 9W across from the Samsondale Plaza while Monsey, Tallman, Stony Point, Tappan, Thiells, New City, Pearl River, Blauvelt, West Haverstraw and other fire departments directed traffic. The firefighters cut off access to Zariello Lane and its surrounding units from civilians and residents were not allowed to access their homes for several hours, not even to retrieve a pet left alone in the house.

Selene Lupo from Komonchak Circle had enough time to leave with her daughter and dog after experiencing the explosion. “I was sitting on my dining room table actually, working, and I saw a cloud of gas and then heard this horrific boom! And the whole house shook. My daughter’s trophies all fell off her shelf. And we ran out of the house, grabbed our dog and we saw a fireman on the floor. People were screaming ‘stay with me!’ And we saw a cloud of smoke, fire and the house was gone. It was completely gone,” she said.

Mother of two and Matone Circle resident, Alysia Rodriguez, actually witnessed the explosion. She said, “I was on the second floor of our town house and could see directly on an angle the house. It was just a massive explosion. Everything shook. The whole house, the whole area shook. The house….I see debris flying in the air. Flames…it was just a mess. It was really, really an awful site to see. It was like out of a movie. It should have been in the movies because it was just unreal. Unreal the explosion that occurred.”

Car saleswoman and single mother, Mae Naber, also lives on Matone Circle, but was away from her home when the incident occurred. “My son was actually in the house. I had the police try to bang on the door to actually wake up him up, to get him out,” she said about her 22-year-old son who was home alone and apparently slept through the incident. Naber left work to retrieve some medicine at her home, but she was directed to visit the EMS for any medical assistance instead.

Before the explosion, a gas leak was unleashed when a Verizon contractor hit a main, causing it to flow into the ground in the neighborhood. Several residents have confirmed smelling the gas in the early afternoon including Rich Cammarata who lives on Matone Circle. “I actually walked out and left my house around noon… I smelled gas but I thought they [Verizon] were still working. So I figured they had it under control and then I left…I’m at my gym and on the T.V. it came up ‘Explosion in West Haverstraw.’”

Orange and Rockland was called about the leak around 12:13 p.m. by Rockland’s Department Emergency Services. Two O&R workers were sent out to investigate. When they arrived evacuation procedures were already underway and it was during the evacuation that the town house exploded. The two workers were injured; one sent to Good Samaritan Hospital and the other to Nyack Hospital.

Firefighters Patterson and Knapp were also lifted off the ground by the blast and according to Brandon Smith, Deputy EMS Coordinator for Rockland County, the injuries consisted of “… chest pains, exertions, some muscle pull; smoke inhalation…most of it was precautionary.”

It’s been an especially tough year for Patterson, he was seriously injured only a year and two days before the gas blast, in a fire in an out of code home in West Haverstraw. Firefighter Andrew Kolesar saved Patterson’s life in the incident and earned Firefighter of the Year awards for his efforts.

After the explosion, “…[Orange and Rockland] turned the electricity off to 5,000 customers of this immediate area this afternoon after the blast, so that there weren’t any appliances that might be sparking around natural gas…starting a flame,” said O&R Spokesperson, Mike Donovan.

Donovan further explained how the disaster occurred, placing the blame on the Verizon workers. He said, “A mark out request by FGC Communication for hand digging excavation for a portion of this subdivision was received on December 28. Their request specifically indicated that there would be no directional boring. Their request was returned through the New York State electronic one-call system on January 5 due to insufficient information on the specific work location. FGC field representatives subsequently identified an area for mark out, however this was not the location where the damage occurred. There was no valid or completed mark-out request through the one-call system for FGC for this area and the damage location had not been marked out for subsurface utilities.”

Verizon did not comment.

The Haverstraw Town Police assisted in the evacuation of residents. The Rockland Bureau of Criminal Investigation is investigating if any wrong-doing took place on the part of the contractor. Residents were able to return to their homes in the late evening prior to midnight, except for the homes directly damaged by the explosion of 52 Zariello Lane. Ninety-six units were closed after O&R examined the structure and integrity of the buildings.

In the future, any resident who smells gas in their neighborhood is advised by West Haverstraw Fire Chief George Zayas to: “Get out of the house. Call 911. That’s the best thing to do. We’ll call Orange and Rockland; we’ll handle that. We have meters. You hear about this stuff happening all of the country and it’s never going to happen here. Well guess what, it happened here.”

The story was one of the top news items of the day in the tri-state area, regularly updated on WCBS 880 and WINS 1010 radio as well as all four major NYC television stations.

Dylan Skriloff and Michael Weinstein contributed to this report