New York City Fire Chief Killed in Bronx Explosion

The Wall Street Journal - September 29, 2016

by Thomas MacMillan, Pervaiz Shallwani and Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Updated Sept. 27, 2016 7:30 p.m. ET A man arrested in Cliffside Park, N.J., on a warrant for petty crime was being questioned in connection with the blast, a law-enforcement official there said. The man was believed to be a tenant in the Bronx home who was seen leaving the area after the explosion, a New York City law-enforcement official said.

Firefighters responded shortly before 6:30 a.m. to a call from someone who smelled gas coming from the two-story home in the Kingsbridge neighborhood, officials said.

When they arrived, firefighters discovered what appeared to be a so-called marijuana grow house in the residence and reported it to police, law-enforcement officials said. Firefighters and police were evacuating surrounding buildings when the explosion occurred, blowing a large portion of the roof out onto the street, officials said.

Michael Fahy, a Fire Department of New York battalion chief, was directing evacuation operations from the street when he was hit in the head and other parts of his body by the flying debris, including a piece of the roof, officials said. He was taken to New York-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

“We had a tragedy today,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference. “A tragedy that has befallen the family, our fire department, and our entire city.”

Chief Fahy, 44 years old, was a married father of three children, ages 6, 8 and 11, Mr. de Blasio said. He was the son of a fire chief and an emerging leader in the department, said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro. It was the department’s first death in the line of duty in two years, he said.

“He was on the rise. He was a star,” said Mr. Nigro. “We lost a hero today and our members are all saddened.”

An FDNY spokesman said eight other firefighters, six police officers, three Con Edison employees and two civilians were injured in the blast, which drew 140 responders to the scene. None of those injuries were life-threatening, officials said.

Police Commissioner James O’Neill said that police received information about the residence, located on West 234th Street, a couple of weeks ago and were investigating it as a site of a possible marijuana-growing operation.

Police found a “significant” amount of marijuana in the apartment, plus growing materials including fertilizer, a law-enforcement official said.

Many indoor marijuana-growing operations today “are much like the meth houses of the 1990s,” said Erin Mulvey, a special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration who is involved with the investigation.

They can be filled with electrical systems with loose wiring, flammable fertilizers, propane and butane and sometimes involve structural alterations for venting, she said.

Marijuana growers employ high-powered lights that are kept on around the clock, requiring a lot of electricity that is sometimes stolen from neighbors, she said. Heating and air-conditioning systems are needed to keep the temperature at the optimum growing heat of between 71 and 81 degrees, she said. And there are often chemical fertilizers and pesticides on hand.

“This all adds up to a ticking time bomb that can explode, especially if there’s a gas leak,” Ms. Mulvey said.

Grow houses aren’t typically an urban phenomenon because of the amount of space they require, Ms. Mulvey said. But they aren’t labor-intensive and can be operated by only a couple of people, she said.

At the scene of the blast Tuesday morning, helicopters flew overhead and debris from the explosion could be seen on top of a building farther down the street.

The back of the home was reduced to a pile of rubble and smoke was still coming form the building Tuesday afternoon as firefighters worked to remove the debris. Robert White, a 65-year-old substitute teacher, said he was watching television when he felt the blast.

“It felt like somebody on the other side of the wall took a giant refrigerator and dropped it, smacked it into the wall behind where I was sitting,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was happening but within minutes I heard sirens.”

Lawrence Molatto, 52, was in a high-rise nearby on Irwin Avenue when he heard a loud boom.

“I looked out my window and I saw police emergency service, EMS, fire department. And I’m like ‘Whoa, this is something big,’ ” he said.

From his 17th-floor apartment, Mr. Molatto said he saw debris on multiple houses on the street. Both men said they never expected a drug operation to be in the neighborhood.

“Usually I ride my bike this way,” Mr. Molatto said. “The houses are just quiet, I don’t see anyone coming or going. Most of the people in the area tend to keep to themselves.”

“They say you never know what goes on behind closed doors,” he said.

—Kate King contributed to this article.