Chapter Twenty: Gas explosion rocks Gail Place


Every day at 11:45 a.m., Monae Mazzeo, 35, of Secaucus made her way home to 34 Gail Place to have her lunch. Working at Panasonic on Meadowlands Parkway less than a mile away allowed her to check on the house and have her lunch. But on Feb. 23, she found her street blocked with fire trucks. The members of the Seventh Street fire house sprayed hoses down from a 95 foot high firefighting platform, as other companies from the rest of the town battled a blaze from the ground, billows of smoke making it unclear to onlookers from a block away which house was on fire.

The arches of water pushed back the flames and created a dramatic scene of smoke and stream for nearly two and half hours. To Mazzeo=s horror, the house B gutted by flames and a gas explosion that had set the blaze B was hers.

Since the house was empty except for the landlord=s German shepherd, Mazzeo soon realized how lucky she was, and how lucky the neighborhood was.

AHad I come home 15 minutes earlier, I would have been inside that house,@ she said, standing on the sidewalk with the rest of the crowd, staring down the block as the arches of hoses struggled to make the site safe.

Remarkably, this was the only house on the block empty at the time of explosion, as most of the other houses had kids in them due to the school holiday.

Later, Mazzeo would think of the wedding dress she=d stored in the back room for her big day next September, the piles printed invitations and the party favors all smoldering ashes in a house that the town would have to demolish within a day.

All she and her fiancé, James Burke, had were the clothes they were wearing.

ANo extra underwear, not even a toothbrush,@ she said.

One firefighter suffered a twisted knee when he slipped on ice left as a result of the snowstorm the previous day. Officials said his injuries were minor.

            Fire officials say that a gas line to the house was struck during excavation by United Water Resources workers who had arrived to repair a water main.

Mayor Dennis Elwell said he was sitting in his work trailer on Farm Road B about eight blocks away B with Deputy Mayor John Reilly when he saw a puff of smoke.

AWe knew something had happened,@ Elwell said.

Although Elwell was too far away to hear the explosion, people on the block heard it as the windows of 34 Gail Place casting out glass and flames, some of which struck neighboring houses. The family across the street reported the fire. Units from all five fire houses responded, as did units from Rutherford and North Hudson.

Gail Place is the northernmost section of the 1st Ward.

Secaucus Fire Chief Robert Cordes said flames were shooting out the side of the building when firefighters arrived.

While some residents have complained about the Fire Department taking too long to put out the blaze, town officials said the fire department acted correctly.

Reilly, a member of the fire department himself and the liaison from the council, said the procedure with gas-fed fires is to contain the blaze until the gas company shuts off the gas. That way, the flames will feed on the gas rather than going outward, where they could cause explosions on neighboring property. Mayor Dennis Elwell said had the fire department put out the fire first, the neighborhood might have suffered even more than it did.

AThe whole block could have gone up as well,@ he said. AThe Fire Department did exactly that they were supposed to do.@

            Elwell has asked the state Public Utilities Board to investigate the matter because of confusion over exactly what happened. Officials from United Water and from PSE&G had conflicting stories as to the events leading up to the explosion and Elwell said it would be up to the state to sort it out.

People living on the street B who wished not to be named B said the spot where the water company dug had been excavated at least five times.

AMaybe even more than that,@ one man said.

Indeed, the street has numerous marks showing excavation of some sort nearly in front of every house. This is typical in places such as Jersey City, where aging water mains often result in breaks in connection to various houses.

Councilman Mike Grecco said that block has been plagued with water main breaks, something that seems odd because unlike in Jersey City, Secaucus= mains are relatively new. Two recent breaks caused the block to flood, and in one case, the water froze into a sheet of ice after the flood.

Elwell said the issue would have to be resolved by a state investigation, and he has notified state Senator Nicholas Sacco and state Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto in an effort to get an investigation started.

            Building owners Yasmin and Rocky Bhutani  also lost everything, including Zack, a German shepherd mix who died in the fire. He apparently had been inside the house when the explosion occurred and was blown into the rear yard, where firefighters found him once they were able to get the gas turned off.

Al McClure, the Secaucus Animal Control Officer, sought to reach the dog but could not gain access due to heat and fear that the gas was still active inside the house.

Firefighters did manage to save some caged birds from the house next door, passing them onto Sgt. Mike Makarski, who returned the birds to neighbors. The family was away on vacation. Makarski also provided a police car to help shelter an elderly woman and her grand children from the cold.

Jersey City sent a unit designed to provide coffee and food to firefighters. Also on the scene were EMTs from Jersey City Medical Center and the mobile command truck for the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management.

Councilman Michel Grecco said he was on the scene using a cell phone to call for the town=s social services department to provide help to the families. He said he has also contacted the other residents along the street B nine houses in all B to possibly find overnight housing for them in case the gas was not turned on in time. As a member of the OEM, he contacted OEM Director Vincent Mazzara Sr. to supply electric heaters if necessary.

            Burke said that he was uncertain as to what he and Mazzeo would do next. Although Burke=s parents live in Kearny, he said their house was too small to accommodate them. Mazzeo=s family lives in Pocono Mountains section of Pennsylvania.

Elwell said the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management gave the two couples $250 each to shop for necessities, such as underwear and pajamas, and that United Water would pay to put the couple and the couple who owned the house up in a local hotel until other arrangements could be made.

Karyn Urknowski, director of Secaucus= Department of Social Services, said both families were being put up at the Mainstay for up to two months. Mainstay is a hotel that provides services for long term stays and includes kitchen facilities.

AThis will allow us time to get some things accumulated,@ Urknowski said.

The town provided money for immediate needs, although clothing and other essentials are being sought through the Middle School=s clothing drive program.

AThe town is paying the hotel bill and we expect to be reimbursed by United Water,@ Urknowski said.

Groceries, except for perishables, will be supplied by the town=s food pantry, where possible.

Long term solutions will take more time. While the Bhutani family, the homeowners, had insurance and are seeking an apartment, Burke and Mazzeo will need to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

AThey will not only need an apartment, but everything that goes into it, dishes, pots and pans, furniture, sheets and towels,@ Urknowski said. AWhile we=re seeking to find an apartment for them, we=re gathering donations. We=ll keep the furniture in the town=s storage area at 10 Enterprise Ave. until they are ready to move in.@

            The Bhutani family declined the town=s offer for set up long term arrangements because they expect insurance to cover expenses eventually and are on a much more pretty deadline.

Yasmin Bhutani said they have to find a new home because family members are scheduled to arrive shortly. Bhutani=s mother was supposed to come in to stay with them, and a son was supposed to come in from Africa.

AThank God they didn=t come in sooner,@ she said

Bhutani said town officials have been particularly helpful.

AThe town has been very good to us, and very supportive,@ she said. ABut there are things that just can=t be replaced. I don=t know how much the insurance will cover, but can=t cover it all, not even the cost of replacement.@

The Bhutanis were planning to open a business in Hoboken in a few weeks. They did not have the key to the store so had to have some of the merchandise shipped to the house. This merchandise was still in the house when the explosion occurred.

AAll of that was lost along with the receipts,@ she said. AWhile some of it we paid for with credit cards B and we=re getting reports B some we can=t. We have no proof we purchased those.@

Bhutani said that she wanted to be reimbursed not just for the cost of things they lost, but also for the aggravation and trauma. Her husband was particularly attached to the dog.

AIt was his baby, and strangely, that morning before he left, he played with the dog longer than usual. How were we to know that would be the last time he got to play with the dog?@ she said. AHow do you replace things like that. Who can even pay for that? It isn=t fair.@

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