Firefighters were on the scene an hour before the 7:30 a.m. explosion, responding to reports of a gas leak at a Bronx house, when they stumbled upon what appeared to have been a drug lab, officials said Tuesday. But before police could investigate the house, its roof blew off, fatally striking Battalion Chief Michael Fahey in the head and wounding at least 12 others.
Fahey, the first on-duty New York City firefighter killed in two years, came from a firefighting family. His father Thomas Fahey is a retired FDNY fire chief. Michael, a 17-year veteran of the department, had three young children.
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro referred to the younger Fahey as “one of our rising stars” during a Tuesday press conference. Nigro, visibly upset, said he had known and worked with Fahey’s father. “Seventeen years with the department. He was on the rise. He was a star, a brave man. He was doing what firefighters do this morning.”
Several weeks before the explosion, police received a tip-off that the two-story house in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge neighborhood might be home to a marijuana operation.
“We were in the initial stages of an investigation on that block,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said in a Tuesday press conference. “That’s going to be part of the ongoing investigation as a possible drug lab, as a possible growhouse. Marijuana.”
Explosive substances like propane and butane are sometimes used in marijuana production.
New York City is no stranger to gas explosions, a fact that was not lost on many New Yorkers after two bombing attempts earlier this month. The two makeshift explosives failed to kill anyone, while accidental explosions—often the result of faulty gas hookups—have wreaked significantly greater damage on the city and its inhabitants.
In March 2014, a gas leak leveled a Harlem apartment building, killing six and wounding 70 others. An illegal gas tap in an East Village building sent half a block up in flames in March 2015, killing two. And in August 2015, an explosion in the Bronx’s John F. Kennedy High School left three with serious burns.
The Kennedy High School explosion and Tuesday’s Kingsbridge blast came too close to home for Bronx resident Nicolette Molina. Molina, now 20, is a Kennedy High School alumnus. And when the Kingsbridge home exploded Tuesday morning, Molina felt it from her apartment down the street.
“There’s that stuff in the walls: the foundation. You could almost hear that vibrating,” Molina told The Daily Beast. “I swear to god, I thought it was a bomb.”
Down the block in the opposite direction, neighbor Rey Delvalle’s thoughts went to another kind of disaster. “It woke me up. I thought it was an earthquake or something,” he said of the early morning blast.
Hours after the blast, curtains of smoke were still rising from the ruins of the house. The initial explosion had demolished the second floor and most of the first, burying nearby cars in brick and drywall.
But the explosion rattled more than the neighborhood houses.
“We all know each other. This doesn’t happen in this neighborhood,” Cindy O’Connor, a longtime Kingsbridge resident said from her stoop around the corner. This stretch of Kingsbridge is a quiet grid of two-story homes, many of which have housed the same families for generations, O’Connor said. On one side, her neighbors have lived there 30 years; the other side have been there for 40.
The exploded house was an anomaly, O’Connor said. Home to a transient set of residents, no one in the neighborhood seems to know who lived there at the time of the explosion and alleged drug operation.
“Five or six years ago it was a frat house,” O’Connor said. “Then it became a daycare center. Then the daycare center lost its license and those people moved out. Nobody was living in it for probably nine months I would say, until these people.”
A postal worker who lives in the neighborhood said neither she nor her colleague who delivered mail to the exploded house knew its current occupants. “A lot of college kids,” likely from nearby Manhattan College, she said, had begun renting in the neighborhood.
Whether the home was a being used as a makeshift frat house, a drug lab, or some combination of both remains the subject of investigation. On Tuesday evening, police arrested renter Julio Salcedo, 34, in nearby Cliffside Park, New Jersey, the New York Daily News reported. In a Wednesday statement, Manhattan College announced that no students were involved in the explosion. But neighbors say the blast smells too suspicious to be a routine gas accident.
“‘This is not just a gas leak,’” Molina recalled telling neighbors after seeing the swarm of emergency vehicles after the blast. “I felt my whole apartment shake.” Regarding rumors of a drug lab, she said she believes it “150 percent.”
“Manhattan college is right there. I remember that one of the biggest drug busts in Bronx history was right around here,” she said.
“College kids gotta pay tuition somehow,” Delvalle joked, adding that he worried about other gas hookups in his neighborhood. Like his neighbors, he said he did not know the building’s current inhabitants, and that they appeared to have been renters.
A Tuesday evening investigation by DNAinfo supported the neighborhood’s early suspicions of a drug lab. Sources told the outlet that firefighters discovered a homegrow lab in the house, with an illegal gas hookup, propane tanks, and drums full of explosive fertilizer.
Neighbors said they were shocked an explosion could shake their familiar neighborhood.
“My friend and I used to stand right here and talk for hours when we were teenagers,” Molina said. “It’s weird.”