We heard about the fire from the mailman who had stopped by the office that morning to make a delivery.
It was July 21, 1987 and a propane gas explosion had ripped through the block on 50th Street and 18th Avenue.
I was working for the Bay Ridge Home Reporter, a neighborhood weekly, and I was assigned to cover the blast. It was one of my first big stories.
The smoke from the explosion and resulting fire rose high over this Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I had never seen so many fire engines, police cars, ambulances and news vans in my life.
I was just getting over a nasty summer cold, but I forgot about that as I joined a group of reporters who were penned in an impromptu press area that was formed by two police barriers.
All I could see was smoke and rubble. I broke out the paper’s Polaroid camera—yes, seriously--and began snapping pictures.
In a case of excruciatingly bad timing, I ran out of film just as a firefighter staggered away from the flames, tumbled on to a stretcher and put an oxygen mask to his face. He was wheeled away before I got a chance to load a fresh cartridge.
A police captain told us that four people had been killed when the explosion ripped through a plumbing supply store. One of the victims was some poor guy on his way to work who had walked by the store at the wrong time. Another victim was due to get married in the fall.
Eleven people had been injured as flying debris blew out windows and tore into people waiting at a nearby bus stop. Twelve cops and a dozen firefighters were also injured.
And at some point I was peering through the lens for another shot when the cops to decided to relocate the press zone.
Without saying a word to me they moved the barriers and suddenly I was unknowingly standing in No Man’s Land.
I felt someone tug on my shirt and a cop was saying, “get behind the barricade!”
Well, shit, I thought I was behind the barricade. I quickly got in line with the other reporters and I was fortunate enough to stand next to a veteran journalist from Newsday.
I watched him flag down a young Hasidic man from Hatzolah, a volunteer ambulance service, and pump him for details about the explosion.
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“Now, I want to make Hatzolah look good,” he said.
I was a little surprised by his bluntness as I had thought reporters were supposed to ask questions and not make deals. I was new to journalism but I soon learned that sometimes you’ve got to schmooze a little bit to get a story.
I interviewed a young EMT named Isaac and got some good color for my story. And then I raced back to the paper to write. The story was all over the local news broadcasts that night.
I went to the site the next day to for a follow-up and the block looked like a war zone. I interviewed two sanitation workers who had pulled people from the rubble and then I spoke with a fellow whom I would have to describe as your classic New York little old Jewish man.
He was telling me about what he had seen when one of us stepped off the sidewalk and onto to the street. Instantly this incredibly short cop came running over to us waving his arms.
“Get back on the sidewalk,” he yelled, as if we had knocked over a bank. “Get back on the sidewalk!”
We did as we were told and my companion waited until the police officer was out of earshot before he spoke.
We spoke for a little while longer and then I had to get back to the office.
“Is it okay if I ask your name?” I said rather awkwardly.
The old timer looked surprised.
“What am I, a gangster?” he said. “I shouldn’t give my name?”
I’m sorry to say I forgot that man’s name, but I still remember him.
It turned out the propane tanks were being kept in the store’s basement illegally and the owner received several summonses. I don’t know how the case was settled, but whatever happened, it didn’t make the victims any less dead.
A short time later I was sitting in a deli with some friends who wanted to know about the explosion, so I gave them my firsthand account. I have to say it felt pretty good being the center of attention.
I went on to cover many more disasters over the years, including a gas explosion that destroyed a church. I got accustomed to interviewing cops, firefighters, eyewitnesses and victims who had lost every single thing they owned.
Sometimes I tell myself I miss covering all the mayhem, but after years of business reporting, I think I’ll leave the ambulance chasing to somebody else.
But it sure was a hell of a ride.