NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A man was in police custody and being questioned late Tuesday afternoon, after a house explosion that left an FDNY battalion chief dead in the Bronx.
Police said the man was taken into custody in connection with the explosion at the home at 300 W. 234th St. in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx earlier Tuesday.
Police sources told CBS2 the man was 34 years old and was being questioned in connection with allegations that the home that exploded was being used as a marijuana growhouse. The man was suspected to be a front man or worker behind the operation, sources said.
It is believed that no one lived in the second-floor apartment in the building, but that the suspect paid the landlord to rent and pay the apartment.
The man was picked up in New Jersey by the Regional Fugitive Task Force in Cliffside Park, police said. It was not clear whether anyone else was being sought.
The suspect was being held late Tuesday on an open warrant on petit larceny charges, and he has several priors for drugs and assault, sources said.
The landlord was also questioned, but was not believed to be involved in the growhouse operations, sources said.
Battalion Chief Michael Fahy, a 17-year FDNY veteran and father of three, was killed in the explosion, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a morning news conference.
“It is a reminder of the dangers that our first responders face every day, the dangers that the men and women of the FDNY face and the bravery with which they do their job,” de Blasio said.
“He was on the rise, he was a star, a brave man,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “It’s a terrible loss for the Fahy family, it’s a loss for the fire department family. We feel it deeply…We lost a hero today and our members are all saddened.”
Residents said the scene of the blast looked like a war zone Tuesday morning, with the streets filled with smoke.
“Boom! What an explosion,” said Mary Yuelys. “I couldn’t believe it.”
What appeared to be large marijuana plants were seen inside what was left of the building after the explosion, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported.
“A war zone — it was horrible,” said neighbor Robert Milhakos.
“It was pretty scary,” said neighbor Mary Lahti. “We weren’t sure what it was another terrorist; gas leak.”
It all began when firefighters were called to a two-story house at W. 234th St., near Tibbett Avenue, on a report of gas odor.
“Around 6:15 in the morning, my wife woke me up with a gas smell and I came outside and it was very strong,” said Kingsbridge resident Brian Fellheimer. “I was walking down the block to see if I could find out what it was. And I came down 234th Street and I heard a hissing sound and the gas smell, so I called 911 and they came shortly after.”
Police discovered a possible marijuana growing operation, along with fertilizer and chemicals, inside the building. NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said the department was in the initial stages of an investigation after receiving reports of a possible marijuana grow operation at the location a couple of weeks ago.
No arrests had been made and police did not get into the building until Tuesday when they received the call about a gas leak.
Firefighters had evacuated surrounding buildings and were investigating the odor when the explosion occurred.
“It did blow a large portion of the roof off the building and onto the street where the members were. Chief Fahy was directing operations from the street,” Nigro said. “He was struck on the head, and various other parts of his body.”
Fahy was rushed to the hospital, but could not be saved, Nigro said.
As CBS2’s Ali Bauman reported, of the area said it looked like a war zone Tuesday morning, with the streets filled with smoke. Following the explosion just after 7 a.m., the house was reduced to rubble.
“I look across the street and I see the house was missing,” said Ben Yalow.
Debris also crashed right down onto Milhakos’ gold car.
“It’s crushed, and there’s an air conditioner right on top,” Milhakos said.
Before the blast, the FDNY countered the suspect who was later taken into custody, seeing him run from the apartment, sources said. The suspect’s image was caught on video and he was later traced to Cliffside Park, New Jersey, sources said.
It’s still unclear what exactly caused the blast. Officials are looking into whether it was gas or if the chemicals found inside the building contributed to the explosion.
Images from the scene showed much of the house destroyed and debris strewn across the street and on parked cars.
“It kind of happened in slow motion, like the roof came up and out,” Fellheimer said.
“I was sleeping and I heard this loud bomb, explosion,” resident Barbara Nardo said. “I thought maybe it was lightning that hit a car or something.”
“There was an attempt to get the people out, they were knocking on the door,” another neighbor named Jorge said. “And at that time, I had to leave but about 40 minutes later, then I walked nearby. I heard an explosion and I knew right away it was this.”
“I thought that all the window was going to crack. It was terrible,” another neighbor said. “I had never heard any explosion as that magnitude.”
Six police officers, two civilians and three Con Ed workers along with nine firefighters were hurt. All were taken to area hospitals.
Neighbors told CBS2 the house had been rented out to Manhattan College students over the past few years, and they always kept to themselves.
“I knew it was constantly changing and I never knew who would be living in that house,” Yalow said.
“There was a family before there that lived there, and then they moved out, and then I noticed it was empty for a bit, and then as people started to — I noticed that shrubbery started not getting fixed, and the windows looked like didn’t have like nice curtains – just something very basic – so I’m not sure. It was very quiet,” Lahti said.
There was anger in the neighborhood that illegal activity put residents and first responders at risk.
“I think it’s horrible,” Yuelys said. “I think it’s so damn selfish of all these people that do this stuff, and blow up, put others at risk — and innocent people trying to do their job.”
“It’s devastating,” said Nicolette Molina. “Isn’t this like the first time a firefighter’s gotten killed in two years? It’s scary. It just goes to show you that these people are running in and we’re running out.”
Into the night, evidence teams picked through the rubble and bagged every scrap that looked to be of value – as the site has now has become a crime scene.
Con Edison crews were also still on the scene late Tuesday night, checking every gas main and gas hookup on the block. On Wednesday, an FDNY ladder truck will arrive to help investigators reach the second floor so they can collect evidence.
The theory investigators are working on is that the alleged drug operators may have tampered with the utility hookup and sparked the blast.
Meanwhile, de Blasio has ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff in Fahy’s honor. The last FDNY member to be killed in the line of duty was Lt. Gordon Ambelas, who died while fighting a fire in Brooklyn on July 6, 2014.