One year after a gas explosion rocked New York City's East Village, the vibrant neighborhood has, on its surface, largely returned to normal.
Looking at the packed cafes, crowded bars and bustling foot traffic down Second Avenue, many would have no idea that on March 26, 2015, a blast tore through a building and killed two people, injured dozens more and displaced scores of residents who saw their homes reduced to rubble.
But for those in the community who lived through it, the tragedy - which officials say was largely avoidable - stays with them every day.
InsideEdition.com spoke with New Yorkers who lost their homes that horrific day. Some moved across the country, while others were forced to sleep on strangers' couches.
But there are positive tales too, including learning the kindness of strangers and for one couple who lost everything - a new baby.
Nora Brooks, 41, and her husband, Matthew Brooks, 52, watched their apartment burn for hours and eventually collapse, killing Nora’s beloved 16-year-old cat.
“She had years ahead of her… you never quite get over that,” Nora Brooks told InsideEdition.com.
Brooks recalled getting a call from their roommate with the news.
Nora Brooks' beloved cat, Sylvie, was lost during the explosion. (Brooks Family)
“She said, ‘Nora I’m so sorry, I tried to grab Sylvie but she got away.’ I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ She said there was an explosion, and glass and smoke everywhere and she ran away.”
The couple rushed to the scene, where they looked on helplessly as their home crumbled.
“I went from fireman to fireman, policeman to policeman directing me where to go,” Nora Brooks said. “Finally I found someone who said ‘you see the outside of the building? What you’re looking at, honestly, is a façade. That water cannon is not putting out the fire, it’s knocking down the building.'”
The couple was left with nothing except the clothes on their backs, losing Matthew’s life work as a puppet builder and set dresser and all the books Nora was using for her thesis.
Matt Brooks with one of his creations inside his East Village Apartment (Brooks Family)
When a friend suggested creating a GoFundMe page in their name, they agreed.
“I don’t think either of us would have thought of doing that,” Nora Brooks said. “I never thought it would get beyond a few thousand dollars, if that.”
But donors came out in droves to help, and nearly $40,000 was raised in total.
“I was amazed at how much people seemed to care for the people in that explosion,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of generosity and empathy for people going through a tough time, particularly in New York.”
A year on, their lives look very different.
They used the money to relocate to Nora’s native Portland, Oregon, where Matthew had received a job offer and Nora began teaching.
Nora and Matthew Brooks (Brooks Family)
“It was a difficult decision… there was a real possibility we would have stayed [in New York] if we had the apartment,” she said. “But I think we’re doing pretty well on the whole. And I think a lot of that was the support we got from our friends in New York and our friends in Portland and the people we didn’t even know that came out.”
The couple has since bought a home and they are expecting their first child, who is due in May.
But not all those who were affected by the explosion had others to turn to.
Bonnie Ramon, 44, came home that Thursday to find her block in chaos and her building uninhabitable.
“I was shocked and horrified; to see your building go up in flames. I didn’t know what to do,” Ramon told IE.com. “I had no family or friends that I could stay with.”
Ramon had been living with a roommate on Second Avenue for four months when the three next door buildings collapsed, leaving it impossible to return to their place for two months. What remained was unsalvageable, Ramon said.
“The smoke and water damage pretty much ruined all the apartments. I had to throw all my clothes away. I couldn’t sleep or even stay there for more than half an hour at a time. Breathing that (air) in, I’d get bad migraines and I couldn’t breathe right,” she said. “It was also a mental thing coming back to that building, I didn’t feel comfortable. Seeing the smoke, the fire, all that bothered me.”
Whereas the Brooks received aid from the Red Cross, Ramon says she was not eligible for their help.
"I wasn't on the actual lease," she explained. "That was a big part of my problem. (Because of that, the Red Cross) don't consider you a tenant, but I did live there. My roommate, they helped him more than they could help me. That was the hard part, hearing a lot of 'no, we really can't do anything for you.'"
After months of scouring Craigslist for couches to crash on, Ramon finally found a place to stay in Brooklyn.
“I was looking for work and temping, and going to work, not being able to shower, wearing the same clothes, having the explain that you lost it all … you don’t want to talk about it and people don’t know what to say,” Ramon said.
It's a familiar feeling for many touched by the explosion, including Kathleen Blomberg, 50, who said she struggled with PTSD after the blast.
“I was doing okay for while after it happened. Then I started having Post-Traumatic Stress. I had never experienced that before,” Blomberg said.
Blomberg lives in the first building closest to the blast that was left standing. She was evacuated and left without a home for nearly a month.
“I was in my apartment when it happened. It was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. The whole building shook in every direction. It was really frightening,” she said.
She and a friend who was visiting rushed to see what was happening.
Kathleen Blomberg (Ernesto Gonzalez Photography)
“We looked out the window and saw all the smoke. At the time, you don’t know what caused it or what’s happening. It was just mind-boggling.
“My friend was like, we have to get out of the building,” she continued. “Of course, I wanted to stay to get my cats, but we had to go. By that time (emergency responders) were already roping off the building. There wasn’t a chance to go back in.”
It would be five days before she would be reunited with the feline siblings, Kitty Cordelia and Sebastian, who were found hiding beneath Blomberg’s bed. The reunion served as a moment of joy during a devastating time, she said.
Sebastian and Kitty Cordelia were reunited with their mother after five days apart. (Kathleen Blomberg)
“I was completely overjoyed, but that’s an understatement,” she said. “I was screaming, crying and laughing all at the same time. Now, I'm just trying to get back to normal. I can't believe it's been a year already."
It’s that same thought that's still prevalent for so many when they come across the memorial. Where three five-story, landmarked apartment buildings once stood, just an empty lot remains.
The chain-link fence that cordons off the ground is covered in photos of the two young men who lost their lives so suddenly in the blast.
Nicholas Figueroa, 23, had been on a lunch date at Sushi Park, the ground-floor restaurant at 121 2nd Ave. He had gone to the back of the eatery to pay the check moments before an allegedly illegal gas delivery system in the building exploded.
Moises Lucon, 26, was known to work 12-hour shifts six days a week at the restaurant, as he had been saving money to return to his home country Guatemala to be with his girlfriend.
Both men’s bodies were not found until days later.
Two symbolic graves now stand on the grounds, crosses and statues of angels marking the otherwise barren land.
As people pass by, it’s impossible for most to not stop and take in the site; some stop to pray.
“It’s sad seeing that lot every day, thinking of the two people who lost their lives,” Blomberg said.
Nora Brooks agreed, saying: “I really would like people to appreciate what (landlord) Maria (Hrynenko) has taken from people; the lasting effect on the neighborhood and the lives of the people who live there.”
Maria Hrynenko, owner of 121 2nd Ave., her son Michael Hrynenko, contractor Dilber Kukic, and unlicensed plumber Athanasios Ioannidis were charged last month with second-degree manslaughter in the incident. A fifth defendant, Andrew Trombettas, faces lesser charges for allegedly supplying his master license to Ioannidis. They have all pleaded not guilty.
The group is accused of concocting a scheme to get around paying for the actual amount of gas used in their buildings, a newly renovated space where the average rent was $6,000 per month, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. said after the group was indicted.
Maria Hrynenko allegedly twice installed unsafe gas systems, hiding the second one from inspectors after the first was shut down by utility company Con Edison, Vance said. Prosecutors say they turned the gas back on minutes after Con Edison inspectors left the building that Thursday, and that caused the explosion.
As gas filled the basement, two of the defendants allegedly ran out of the building without calling 911 or warning anyone inside the restaurant or apartment, Vance said.
“I would want to say somebody going to jail is good, but I’m glad there are consequences for what she did,” Nora Brooks said. “I think for a long time she didn’t think there would be.
“We were a community and now we’re no longer neighbors. It’s sad,” she continued. "Matt lived there for 23 years and he had the right to pass that on to our son, who would have had a place to live in the East Village."
The Brooks remain in touch with their neighbors and recently had a baby shower for their first child.
“At the shower, our friends from New York (surprised us with a) commissioned picture of our cat. I just about fell over," she said.
Blomberg returned to her home with Sebastian and Kitty Cordelia, but the adjustment has not been without its challenges.
“I’ve been here since 1993. Returning… on the one hand, it was really—it was home. But then all the memories and everything come with it...” Blomberg said.
Ramon also eventually returned to the neighborhood, saying she too struggled to reconcile what happened with the pull of the East Village.
“I grew up on the Lower East Side; the East Village is home to me," she said. "It’s hard not to come back."