NEW YORK -- Nilsa Aguila broke down in tears Thursday morning while remembering her cousin, who was killed a year ago today in a Harlem gas explosion that claimed eight lives and injured more than 60 others.
“She was always happy, very helpful,” 42-year-old Aguila tearfully told reporters at a vigil marking the one-year anniversary of the explosion. “She was God-fearing, and she loved to dance, she loved to dance, she loved to dance -- merengue, anything.”
On the morning of March 12, 2014, Aguila’s cousin, 44-year-old Griselde Camacho, was in her apartment at 1644 Park Ave. at 116th Street -- one of the two buildings leveled by a massive explosion caused by a gas leak.
Camacho, a security guard at Hunter College, died in the blast, and her mother, Carmen Quinones, was badly injured.
“Without warning, their world changed in an instant,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told mourners at the vigil Thursday in front of the empty lot where Camacho’s building once stood. Family members of the victims, as well as community members and elected officials, held lit candles.
“Nothing would’ve told them that morning that so much was about to change, and so much pain was about to occur,” the mayor said. “We lost eight good people.”
“But as is so often true in this city, in the midst of tragedy, New Yorkers show us something so strong and so resilient and so good as an answer to the suffering,” he continued. “We saw acts of heroism and bravery and compassion.”
The mayor thanked NYPD and FDNY first responders for rushing to the scene, noting that one officer “pulled an injured boy from the rubble before he was in even greater danger.”
And, the mayor added, local residents and passersby also saved lives.
“An ex-marine who saved an FBI agent who happened to be on the scene when the explosion occurred,” de Blasio said, listing people who helped. “If the ex-marine hadn’t come by, we might’ve lost that public servant. There was a deliveryman who rescued a great-grandmother.”
At 9:31 a.m., City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito led the crowd in a moment of silence to mark the exact moment the buildings exploded.
Mark-Viverito then read aloud the names of those lost: George Amadeo, Rosaura Barrios-Vasquez, Giselde Camacho, Rosaura Hernandez, Mayumi Nakamura, Andreas Panagopoulos, Alexis Salas and Carmen Tanco.
As the names were read and people bowed their heads, a Metro-North train roared past on aboveground tracks overhead. (Last year's explosion was so powerful that debris landed on the tracks, temporarily shutting down train service.)
Debris on the Metro-North tracks after last year's explosion. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunande/Getty Images.)
When the reading of the names was complete, a choir of local school children sang "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow."
The mayor’s office said in a statement Thursday that the Mayor’s Fund provided support to nearly everybody affected by the tragedy, raising over $420,000, of which $270,000 in aid was given directly to victims.
The mayor’s office says it also accelerated scheduled infrastructure repairs in the city after the blast. The Department of Environmental Protection, which received an extra $300 million in city funding for 2016-2018, is working with utility companies Con Edison -- which operated the leaky Harlem gas line -- and National Grid to repair aging gas and water pipes.
Griselde Camacho's family notified the city recently that it plans to file a $40 million lawsuit against the city; it will be the first of the victims' families to do so. Con Edison likely will also be a defendant in the lawsuit, the Camacho family's lawyer said. The utility company has maintained that it checked the area for gas leaks in the weeks leading up to the blast.
The mayor’s office said Thursday that more than 90 percent of the 60 ground-floor establishments damaged in the explosion have re-opened.
Dimitri Gatanas, a co-owner of the nearby Urban Garden Center, which was partially destroyed in the explosion, thanked the city for helping him get back on his feet.
“It’s been a tough year getting through this, but because we’re all here together is how we did get through this,” he said. “And I really appreciate it all the efforts of all the city agencies and our neighbors and friends.”
On the sidewalk by the site of the explosion, Gatanas and area residents have planted a Yoshino cherry tree. The box in which the tree is planted, Gatanas explained, is made with wood from a beam of one of the buildings that exploded.
“This tree will eventually grow five stories tall, just like the buildings that once stood,” he said Thursday. “They’ll be blooming when you are thinking about family members. The tree will be blooming and this tree will be a source of love and inspiration for everyone in our community.”