New York City Fire Chief Killed in Bronx Explosion

The Wall Street Journal - September 28, 2016

by Thomas MacMillan, Pervaiz Shallwani and Zolan Kanno-Youngs

A New York City fire department chief was killed and several other people were injured, including first responders, in an explosion in the Bronx Tuesday morning that appeared to be linked to a marijuana-growing operation, officials said. Firefighters responded shortly before 6:30 Tuesday morning to a report of a potential gas leak at 300 West 234th St. in the Kingsbridge neighborhood, a fire department spokesman said.

Upon arrival, firefighters discovered what appeared to be a marijuana grow house in the building, and reported it to police at 7 a.m., law-enforcement officials said. Firefighters and police were in the process of evacuating the home when the explosion occurred, officials said.

Michael Fahy, a Fire Department of New York battalion chief, was killed in the blast, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference. He was struck in the head and other parts of his body by flying debris that included parts of the building’s roof, officials said.

Chief Fahy, 44 years old, was a 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 is 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.”.

Mr. Nigro said Mr. Fahy was on the street outside of the building directing evacuation operations at the time of the blast.

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

A FDNY spokesman said eight firefighters, six police officers, three Con Edison employees and two civilians were injured in the blast, which drew 140 responders to the scene.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said at the news conference that police received information about the residence a couple of weeks ago and were investigating it as a possible marijuana operation.

“We believe that it was an indoor marijuana growing operation, but the investigation is still ongoing,” said Erin Mulvey, a special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration

“Marijuana grow ops now are much like the meth houses of the 1990s,” she said. They can be filled with electrical systems with loose wiring, flammable fertilizers, propane and butane and sometimes involve structural alterations for venting. 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 they often have 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.

Marijuana growing operations sometimes include equipment for the creation of a product called butane honey oil, known on the street as BHO, “dab,” or “wax,” said Ms. Mulvey.

“They use the marijuana leaves and they use the propane or butane to extract THC [the active ingredient in marijuana] from the leaves that gives you an oily residue,” she said. The end product is like a hash oil that can be smoked with e-cigarettes, she said.

It isn’t clear yet whether butane honey oil was being manufactured at the building that exploded, 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 further down the street.

The back of the home on 234th street was reduced to a pile of rubble and smoke still rose at 12:15 p.m. Firefighters were still working 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,” Mr. White 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.