Manhattan Building Collapse

My East Village Home Exploded

While Matthew and Nora Brooks were at the Met, their roommate scrambled to escape their top-floor East Village apartment that would burn up in minutes and eventually collapse.

John Minchillo/AP Photo

Matthew and Nora Brooks were enjoying a rainy afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate her parents’ visit to New York City when they got a call from their roommate. She had just descended five flights of stairs from their shared apartment after feeling an explosion shake the building and said shattered glass was scattered on the floor. It hadn’t yet burst into flames.

The Brookses and their roommate live on the top floor of 123 Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. On Thursday afternoon, their home was the scene of hundreds of firefighters, policemen and even more gaping bystanders coughing and snapping photos in the smoke-filled streets. Cops were handing out face masks to stop the inhalation of smoke that shot up the street.

“I didn’t get it at first,” Nora says of the original phone call. “I asked her, ‘Did you lock the door?’”

The roommate said she managed to grab a pair of sneakers, but Nora’s cat ran away when she tried to pick it up.

Photos and Video From the Scene

The Brookses raced 75 blocks downtown, where police had already cordoned off all access to the area. Two hours after that call, they still didn't know what had become of the five-bedroom apartment where 50-year-old Matthew has lived since 1991. The business below, a shuttered ramen restaurant, didn't seem a likely culprit, Nora believed.

They said police had sent them to four different areas in search of a commander who could update them. One officer on the perimeter apologized for the lack of information.

“The building partially collapsed and the one next to it might have, too,” he said, then showed them a video of the burning building on his cellphone.

It wasn’t very comforting.

“We can’t find the command center and no one seems to know anything,” Nora said, clearly frustrated. “My cat is probably dead.”

The pair said they were involved in litigation against the landlady, who owns both their building and the one next to it, but didn’t want to elaborate further on the record.

“Honey, we shouldn’t be breathing this in,” Matthew, an entry sticker from the Met still stuck to his shirt, told his wife, leading her down Third Avenue, away from the endless sirens and toward cleaner air.