After the explosion up in East Harlem on Wednesday, Colin Patterson stood in the street in a flannel pajama top, saying he could not explain how he survived.
“It’s a miracle!” he announced. “I’m a miracle!”
The 53-year-old piano technician’s eyes were wild and his mouth was caked with black dust.
“The whole building fell on me!”
He said he was about to get dressed in his first floor apartment at the back of Absolute Piano when a thunderous blast tore through the building. Debris began raining down and he gave no thought to grabbing his wallet or cell phone as he fled. The store that had been his home and workshop for 10 years had suddenly become a place of all but certain death.
He somehow managed to reach the street as the whole five-story structure collapsed around him. He can only guess that his beloved pianos shielded him as they were thrown up onto their sides.
“I got out in seconds,” he later said. “It felt like an hour.”
The five-story building next door, which housed the Spanish Christian Church, also fell. Patterson then saw flames.
“No fire at the beginning, just a huge explosion,” he said.
The first firefighters were there within two minutes and one carried a critically injured child from the rubble onto Park Avenue. Another firefighter led Patterson over to an ambulance, where a paramedic hung a multi-colored triage tag around his neck, registering him as one of the three dozen to receive medical attention, many of whom were youngsters. He sat there as the air filled with smoke and ever more sirens.
“I didn’t expect my world to get blown up,” he said.
Dozens of neighborhood people came running, anxious to help
“Come on, let’s go help,” a 48-year-old building engineer named Mike Lewis cried out. “Hurry up! Hurry up!”
Lewis joined in freeing people from a vehicle that had been partially buried by the cascading bricks and concrete.
“I’m a New Yorker, man,” he later explained for his admirable act of service.
Patterson saw a woman who lives in the building return from her job and become hysterical when she could not find her husband, who works at home.
“She was crying her eyes out,” Patterson said.
The three confirmed dead were all women. One has been indentified as Griselda Comacho, a 44-year-old Hunter College public safety officer who was known to be a devoted mother to her teenage son. At least 10 other residents from the 15 apartments in the two buildings had not been located. Patterson gave thanks that most the people in his building are employed and likely would have left for work by the time of the explosion.
“If it had happened an hour earlier…” Patterson began to say then stopped, not needing to voice the implication.
The NYPD canine unit arrived and, rather than slip on the metal collars that instruct the dogs to go after law-breakers, the cops put on the leather collars that signal a search mission for trapped people. The initial result was negative, but much of the area was still on fire and too unstable to search.
In the meantime, paramedics told Patterson they wanted to take him to the hospital for examination. He initially balked, but they insisted and he was soon at Metropolitan Hospital.
The doctors there confirmed that Patterson had indeed escaped injury, making him a distant kin to the firefighters on 9/11 who had been on the fourth floor of the North Tower and somehow survived the collapse of a 110-story building on top of them.
The hospital discharged him with a MetroCard for the subway and some paperwork, which he clutched along with his triage tag as he returned to the scene, the white hospital bracelet still on his wrist.
The FDNY claim that the explosion was almost certainly the result of a gas leak, and Patterson recalled smelling something when he came home late the night before.
“I thought it was a sewer,” he now said. “I didn’t take it too serious.”
At least two of his next-door neighbors, 20-year-old Jennifer Salas and her husband, 23-year-old Jordy Salas, had also noticed the smell on Tuesday night. It then dissipated and they went to sleep.
At 9:13 a.m. the following morning, somebody else noticed a gas smell and called Consolidated Edison, which dispatched a repair crew. The crew had not yet arrived when the explosion struck 18 minutes later.
More than 250 firefighters responded, along with paramedics and emergency service police officers. The firefighters put water on the flames from tower ladders and rooftops. Other firefighters and cops continued a search that promised to be long and difficult.
“We’ll get to the basement eventually,” FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano pledged.
“God forbid there are still some [people] in that building,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Jordy Salas remained among the missing, along with the couple’s dog. His cell phone went unanswered.
Patterson did not need to be told to count himself lucky, even though the place where he made his livelihood and the implements with which he made it had all been lost.
“It’s not there no more,” he said. “All my tools, everything is gone.”
Several neighbors spoke of construction being done at one of the buildings, but city officials said at a briefing that no work permits had been issued for either building. Officials also report there was no record of any previous leaks or plumbing violations at those addresses. There was a record of a new gas line being installed in one of the structures last year.
Patterson had hoped to find refuge in a friend’s deli on W. 116th Street, but it was within the cordoned off area and the police would not let him pass. A cop then led him to a school where the Red Cross had established temporary shelter.
The East Harlem Miracle Man passed inside in the plaid pajama top and the sweat pants he had been wearing when we all got a lesson in the danger that can accompany a questionable smell of gas.
“It all happened so fast,” he said.