EAST HARLEM — At 6 a.m. on March 12, Ufuk Bekiroglu started to set up his vegetables and fruit street stand at East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. He had just arrived from Hunts Point Market in the Bronx where he stokes for the day. Everything was normal, early costumers buying fruits for breakfast, commuters waiting for the M102 and M116 MTA buses. At 9:30 a.m. Bekiroglu, 42, was selling a 25-cent banana to a customer when they both heard an explosion.
“I was giving her change,” said Bekiroglu. “Then I heard something, I turned right and there was fire, smoke and a lot of windows and building stuff that blew up.” Bekiroglu thought it was a train accident; the grey almost white smoke went downtown with the wind.
A block and a half from his stand, two buildings had collapsed to the ground due to an explosion caused by a gas leak. “We thought it was a bomb,” said Dimitrius Alexiou, 56, who works at Sam’s Famous Pizzeria in the corner of Lexington Ave and 116 Street. “There were customers here, and they started calling family members. There was a lot of smoke. It was scary.”
One of the buildings that collapsed, 1646 Park Ave, housed Absolute Piano, a store on the first floor that sold new and refurbished pianos. The shop also rented pianos, tuned and repaired them. The five-story building, owned by Kaoru Demler Muramatsu ,who also managed the shop, was completely destroyed and Absolute Piano vanished into a pile of rubble, along with all of its pianos.
Muramatsu along with her business partner Mark Ripatti, who had worked many years at a midtown piano store, established Absolute Piano in September 2005. From 2010 through July 2013, the company also had a contract with the New York Department of Education. As part of ShopDOE, a purchasing planning portal for personnel of the city’s department of education, Absolute offered “Kawai” brand pianos and accessories to schools.
Fortunately, most of the store’s employees had not shown up to work yet at the time of the explosion, since the store only operated from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Colin Patterson, a 53-year-old piano technician, who lived behind the store, was there at the moment of the explosion. He told the Daily News, “The pianos flew in the air—pianos were all around me.” But Patterson, who sustained minor injuries, said the pianos saved him. “I was stuck in some miraculous cocoon,” he told the paper.
Attempts to reach the owners and employees of Absolute Pianos were unsuccessful.
Facebook became a focal point for the community’s grief and support after the explosion. Here are some posts extracted from Absolute Piano Facebook page and yelp.com
According to Absolute Piano’s Facebook page, the CEO of Steinway & Sons offered the Harlem company the use of Steinway Hall on West 57th Street. The post said that they also received help from the staff of Beethoven Pianos, a shop that sells and restores pianos in midtown and from Juilliard School “Countless support has been received,” read the post. “We lost our store and inventories, but we feel we are very fortunate. We have experienced priceless moments.”
How many pianos were in the store at the time of the explosion is still unknown. But, experts agree that the pianos at Absolute are probably not salvageable, since they were exposed not only to a severe explosion, but also to fire, water and debris. Even if some survived, they can’t be fixed.
“Pianos are very sensitive instruments,” said Rick Aquino, founder and president of Worldwide Piano, a piano store and music school in Edison, N.J. “It’s very tough to repair a piano that has been in a bad environment, let alone what happened to those; they are done.”