The field of rubble on Second Avenue in Lower Manhattan where three buildings stood before they were destroyed by a gas explosion last month shares a neighborhood with restaurants serving borscht and varenyky, shops that post signs in Cyrillic and a store selling tubs of poppy seed spread. These are the vestiges of a pocket of the East Village neighborhood once so dense with Ukrainian immigrants fleeing Soviet control after World War II that it was known as Little Ukraine.
Little Ukraine gave ground to luxury apartments, cold-pressed juice bars, students and nightclubs. But as their compatriots moved on, the Hrynenko family, which owned 121 Second Avenue, the building at the heart of the disaster, dug in deeper, amassing a real estate empire rooted in the East Village and reaching far beyond.
The blast on the afternoon of March 26 came from the five-story red brick building constructed in 1886 and owned, public records show, by Maria Hrynenko, 55.
Two men died and nearly two dozen people were injured in the explosion and its aftermath. Officials are investigating the cause, which they believe may have been a gas line being improperly tapped to supply newly renovated apartments on the floors above a sushi restaurant in the building, and an effort to cover up the misuse. That building, along with the ones next door on either side — 119 Second Avenue, another Hrynenko (pronounced her-NEN-ko) property; and a third building not owned by the family, 123 Second Avenue — were all demolished in the blast and fire.
Ms. Hrynenko’s husband, Michael Hrynenko Sr., who died in 2004, went into real estate in the 1970s, long before the East Village was chic. The buildings he bought remain a family enterprise. But as the investigation into what went wrong has unfolded, the Hrynenkos have not spoken publicly, and few on Second Avenue seem to have known them well.
As a cashier in the 1970s at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant a few blocks north of the explosion site, Mr. Hrynenko worked hard and late, piling newspapers all through the night on Saturdays to have them ready for Sunday mornings. He left to open his own cafe, Kiev, scarcely 1,000 feet away, in 1978. Open 24 hours a day, it was a fixture of the neighborhood, immortalized in verse by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Over the years, it was perpetually filled by whatever wave of hip people were laying claim to the area at the time.
Tom Birchard, the owner of Veselka, said he had grown close to the Hrynenkos, attending the couple’s traditional Ukrainian wedding in a church in Queens. He was also a tenant at 119 Second Avenue for several years, and he believes the owners continually struggled with bringing the 19th-century building up to modern specifications.
Of the catastrophe, Mr. Birchard said, “It’s an American immigrant tragedy.”
Map | Buildings owned by the Hrynenko family
Building maintenance was in Mr. Hrynenko’s blood. His father, also named Michael, was the superintendent at 128 Second Avenue, said Mark Sydorak, an accountant whose father had owned that building.
Mr. Hrynenko, drawn away by his real estate holdings, closed the still-popular Kiev in 2000. Former employees said that as the restaurant’s days waned, he increasingly left his mother, a woman everyone affectionately called Mama, in charge. Four years after shutting the place, he died at age 50 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Each real estate company of which Ms. Hrynenko is now the principal seems to bear a form of her children’s names — Crystal Apartments L.L.C. for her daughter Crystal, 31; Nasher Realty Corporation may be for two daughters, Natasha, 21, and Sherry, 22. One, M.A.H. Realty L.L.C., may refer to her son, Michael A. Hrynenko, known as Mischou. Another company’s name consists of the initials of all four children’s first names.
Among the family’s holdings are properties in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. One, an industrial building, sold in 2009 for over $1 million, according to a report in The Miami Herald.
Mischou Hrynenko, 29, handled some day-to-day operations on Second Avenue. Roop Bring, the owner of Sam’s Deli at 123 Second Avenue, said that Mr. Hrynenko was a regular there, and that he presented himself as an employee of Ms. Hrynenko’s, never mentioning that his family owned the buildings next door. Posts on Mr. Hrynenko’s Facebook page show him smiling from the roof of what appears to be one of the buildings, with Middle Collegiate Church below.
He was in the basement of 121 Second with a contractor, Dilber Kukic, when the explosion occurred. The pair had been sent there to investigate a reported smell of gas at Ms. Hrynenko’s request, said Tom Curtis, a former lawyer for the family. Mr. Hrynenko was injured in the explosion, and Mr. Kukic carried him from the building.
In February, Mr. Kukic had been charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office with bribing an undercover investigator posing as a housing inspector, in a building not related to the Hrynenkos. The case is still open, with its next court date in early May. Mr. Kukic did not respond to a request for an interview for this article, nor did any of Ms. Hrynenko’s children.
Mark A. Bederow, a lawyer for Mr. Kukic, declined to answer questions about his client. “People shouldn’t speculate about who is responsible and who caused the tragedy,” Mr. Bederow said.
Through her longtime lawyer, Mr. Curtis, Ms. Hrynenko, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing by authorities, declined to speak. She has since retained a new lawyer, whose name Mr. Curtis said he had been instructed by her not to disclose.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office said an investigation into the source of the collapse was underway. But such undertakings tend to be complex, and any possible criminal charges are likely to be a long way off. Charges against people linked to a crane collapse on the Upper East Side that killed two construction workers in 2008 were brought two years later; the owner of the crane company was charged with manslaughter and was acquitted. Two years after two firefighters died during a fire in the Deutsche Bank building in Lower Manhattan in 2007, three men were indicted on a manslaughter charge; all were acquitted in 2010.
Longtime New Yorkers
The Hrynenko family has been in New York for generations. Its background set it apart from what is left of the East Village’s dwindling Ukrainian stronghold, neighbors said: The Hrynenkos hail from a small ethnic subgroup known as Lemko, with origins in the Carpathian Mountains. And though they owned considerable property in the neighborhood, they no longer lived there. Ms. Hrynenko and her son have homes in Palisades, N.Y., in Rockland County.
The two buildings owned by the Hrynenkos on Second Avenue were of a pair; the building next to them, 123, was more than 50 years older, dating to 1834. It was owned by Anna and George Pasternak and housed two shops at its base, Sam’s Deli and Pommes Frites, a Belgian-style French fries stand.
Omer Shorshi, the owner of Pommes Frites, said he was investigating his legal options. Mr. Bring, the owner of Sam’s Deli, said it was too early for him to decide on a course of action.
The interior of 121 Second Avenue had been completely renovated this past summer, according to a tenant who moved into a four-bedroom apartment there in July but declined to give his name because he did not want to say negative things publicly about his landlord. The apartment was heated and cooled with an electric unit mounted on the wall that used a remote control, he said. The gas stove worked, as did the hot water.
A four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment next door in 119 Second Avenue rented for $6,200 in July, the website StreetEasy said. But other apartments were rent regulated and cost far less, said Matthew Brooks, 50, who had lived for 23 years in a four-bedroom top-floor apartment in 119 Second Avenue, for which he paid about $2,000 a month.
Beside the crater left by the buildings is 125 Second Avenue, a sand-colored building with some windows blasted out, their frames charred. Tenants were evacuated after the explosion.
Alex Bodhanowycz, whose family owns the building, said that of 26 units, only two were severely damaged. He spent the days after the explosion shepherding residents inside briefly to gather passports, documents and pets. On April 14, tenants in 18 apartments were allowed back into their homes by the city. One resident’s cat was still missing.
When Ms. Hrynenko took over the family’s real estate business after her husband’s death, an operation that was once smoothly run seemed to become more disorganized, according to some of her tenants.
“You’d ask her to do a repair, and she became hostile and started screaming and yelling,” said Mr. Brooks, who was involved in a yearslong legal battle with Ms. Hrynenko over an exhaust system from a restaurant.
Records of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development show that last May, a tenant filed complaints over a leaking roof and skylight. The records also show three closed “tenant actions” in 2013.
At 117 Second Avenue, another of Ms. Hrynenko’s buildings, one tenant, who declined to give his name because he did not want to jeopardize his living situation by saying negative things about his landlord, said the heat flickered on and off, despite multiple attempts to repair the system.
Last spring, heavy rains brought part of that building’s roof down, said Billy Calanca, 24, who lives with four roommates in a four-room top-floor apartment. Ms. Hrynenko sent text messages to tenants to apologize and make sure they were fine. She had contractors rebuild the roof within 24 hours, he said.
Peggy Azzariti has lived next door to the Hrynenkos in Rockland County for 11 years, where, she said, Ms. Hrynenko was the sole neighbor to stop by and welcome her, carrying a bouquet of flowers, when she first moved in. Unasked, Ms. Hrynenko kept an eye on the Azzaritis’ house and alerted them to problems. When a tree between their houses began to list dangerously, Ms. Hrynenko pointed it out.
“She said she was afraid in case some of my grandkids would come by, they might play in the side yard,” and be in harm’s way, Ms. Azzariti said. The two shared a house painter, who told Ms. Azzariti that Ms. Hrynenko discovered the extent of her real estate holdings only when her husband died.
In the East Village, Ms. Hrynenko built personal relationships with some tenants. Mr. Calanca said she doled out hugs when they passed her on the street. Her office was across the street from Sushi Park, the restaurant on the ground floor of 121 Second Avenue.
Hyeonil Kim, who owned Sushi Park, recalled swapping details with Ms. Hrynenko about their personal lives, particularly the loss of her husband. “If you hear her life story in the past, you will know it is a tearful story,” he said.
But Mr. Kim also said Ms. Hrynenko was out of touch with what went on her buildings. He described her as in over her head.
Shortly after the explosion, Mr. Kim was interviewed by the police. He detailed his theory that a pipe installed beneath his restaurant was siphoning gas from one of Ms. Hrynenko’s buildings to another, 121 Second Avenue, for which the utility, Consolidated Edison, had not approved gas — yet tenants were somehow receiving it.
Investigators are pursuing the possibility that gas was being redirected from pipes going into two of the buildings that were destroyed. Two people inside Sushi Park, a customer, Nicholas Figueroa, 23, and a worker, Moises Ismael Locón Yac, 27, died in the blast.
Ms. Hrynenko took other tenants to court. In 2011, a dispute between her and occupants of three apartments led to litigation. The exhaust vent for a new restaurant at the base of 119 Second Avenue, a ramen shop owned by Mr. Kim, was built incorrectly, according to the city’s Buildings Department. Ms. Hrynenko had pushed Mr. Kim to open the noodle shop in what had once been the vintage store Love Saves the Day, he said, offering him a deal and telling him she worried that another restaurateur might come in and poach business from Sushi Park. To remedy the exhaust problem, Ms. Hrynenko sealed some tenants’ windows externally and sought to brick them up from the inside, among other measures.
When the tenants objected and would not permit the construction in their homes, she tried to evict them. The tenants, including Mr. Brooks, who lived in the rent-regulated four-bedroom on the top floor, countersued. They prevailed in 2013 when Ms. Hrynenko agreed to move the exhaust vent. The ramen restaurant was closed that year and did not reopen.
But the bad blood has continued. Mr. Curtis, the former lawyer for Ms. Hrynenko, said the tenants from the three apartments involved in the suit stopped paying rent in 2011 and owed almost $200,000.
Darryl M. Vernon, a lawyer for two of the tenants, said they resumed paying rent in 2013, when their windows, which had remained sealed from the outside, were reopened.
Several tenants of rent-regulated apartments at 119 Second Avenue, including Kim-Nora Moses, Robert Schmidt and Mr. Brooks, said that when they did pay rent, their checks were sometimes returned or were not cashed. Mr. Brooks said he believed this was part of an attempt to build a case to evict them.
Right before the blast, the atmosphere in the buildings had grown increasingly hostile, he said. “With Maria in charge, it felt like anything could happen,” he said.
Just around the corner from where crews of workers were carting off the rubble of the three buildings late last month, stone and metal mixed with the tattered belongings of their occupants, stood a polished red brick building at 46 East Seventh Street.
Inside, the pristine staircase smelled of fresh paint and the stairs were clad in white and black marble all the way up, five stories high. The building is owned by Ms. Hrynenko. The vacate order has been lifted by the Buildings Department, allowing the residents to start returning home.
Reporting was contributed by Matt A. V. Chaban, Jiha Ham, Patrick McGeehan and Nate Schweber, and research by Susan C. Beachy.
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