Revisiting Bay Ridge’s 1991 Labor Day explosion after 25 years

August 31, 2016 Anna Spivak
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Marking the 25 year anniversary of a devastating 86th Street explosion that left three people dead and over 30 others injured on September 2, Labor Day of 1991, we’re going back in time, and back in our archives, to take a look at some of the firsthand accounts from the gas-related blast.

In the September 6, 1991 issue of the Home Reporter and Sunset News, “six pages of exclusive news and photos” were dedicated to the story. Individual tales of heroism, both applauding civilians and first responders, fill the pages of the 50 cent paper (the same price an issue will cost you today), along with some of the details of what happened that Monday.

“Several residents told officials they smelled gas moments before the blast,” reporter Paula Katinas writes in the 1991 story “Say Gas Leak Caused Deadly 86 St. Blast.” “According to a published report, an official stated that one of the building’s residents may have illegally tapped into a gas line, causing a buildup of natural gas which led to the explosion.”

Lifelong Ridgeite and neighboring resident to the two affected buildings – 361 and 363 86th Street – John Michelakis remembered the event similarly.

“At the time I think there were complaints of gas leaks and stuff like that coming from the area,” Michelakis, 21 at the time, recalled. “They were doing construction constantly so they were always [working on the buildings] and I heard the owner of the building actually tapped into the gas line illegally.”

Michelakis remembers hearing something like a large rumble when he was turning onto the block at around 7 p.m. that day and immediately rushing to check on his family, who lived just four houses down.

“It was very, very shocking, more than unbelievable,” Michelakis said. “In the days following, we couldn’t get back into our house for several days because they had to do an inspection to the house. No one was allowed to go inside. Our dog was trapped in the backyard and my brother had to go get our dog through a [rear] neighbor’s yard. It was unforgettable.”

The blast from the two buildings sent bricks, metal, glass and debris flying onto 86th Street, according to this paper’s 1991 story, and took out several windows on neighboring buildings. Hundreds of cops and firefighters, along with EMS personnel, responded to the explosion that was dubbed a three-alarm blaze.

Then-Councilmember Sal Albanese remembers arriving on the scene after hearing the blast.

“I was basically amazed at the fact that there were no buildings there anymore,” Albanese recalled. “They were flat and it was like an empty lot. That’s how bad it was. It was quite traumatic and I remember talking to the firefighters and seeing what I could do to help, but it was really nothing at that point. Unfortunately, [people] lost their lives.”

Those three people were Marie Overgaard, an 86-year-old resident of 361 86th Street’s ground floor and her neighbor 30-year-old Badea Badron along with Daniel McCue, 60, who lived in the next building. Thirty-one people were reportedly injured in the explosion, including nine first responders.

“I was just taken aback by the power of the explosion,” Albanese said, “that it basically leveled the entire complex. There was just nothing there anymore and [the only thing to do was] just stand at the scene and watch the emergency personnel do their job.”

In 1991, Albanese described the scene as an “inferno.”

In the days following, at least 50 people would learn that they were homeless and several displaced residents would find refuge with friends or relatives.

“It took probably three or four years before it was basically two vacant lots,” Michelakis said of the rubble that was once the two buildings. “They just filled in the holes and then finally were able to sell the properties and build those condo-type buildings.”

Currently the three-story buildings at 361 and 363 86th Street are both 12-unit, multi-family walk-ups. They were built in 2000. The buildings directly next door, Michelakis’ included, still maintain their original 1921 structure, and with the exception of new windows and minor fixes, still look the same as they did in 1991.

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