The explosion and subsequent fires in the East Village that occurred on March 26 destroyed three apartment buildings and a handful of businesses and, in one afternoon, displaced hundreds of New Yorkers. This one corner tucked between East 7th Street and Second Avenue served as a home and studio space for various artists and musicians, including singer-songwriter Laura Gibson, who was in her fifth-floor apartment at 119 Second Avenue at the time of the explosion.
“I was sitting and reading, about to get into the shower — you know, a few minutes later and it would have been a different situation,” she says with a slightly uneasy laugh. “It was very apparent that something was wrong. The feeling of the explosion in my body was really violent; it’s hard for me to describe.”
Gibson went into survival mode. She grabbed a jacket and with half-put-on shoes flew down the stairwell, encountering smoke and debris along the way. Upon arriving at her apartment’s doorway, which was now reduced to shattered glass and rubble, she said an unknown citizen assisted her with getting out of the building.
“I just remember going through and seeing the glass of the front door, stopping for a moment, and there’s a man outside wanting to help me, and I opened the door and joined a river of people running away down 7th Street,” she recalls. “I ran with everybody, but then there was a wave of other people running towards us with cameras and stuff. I still had no idea what was happening, but I knew it was bad.”
With smoke still affecting her lungs, Gibson took a quick stop in a nearby saloon to ease her breathing before heading to the Cooper Union building, where she made a few phone calls, saw the flames rise above her apartment, and began to assess her current horrific situation. But during this time of panic and uncertainty, Gibson says, the last things on her mind were her melting objects.
“This amazing thing about New York is that sometimes, you think you’re anonymous, and then you realize the networks of people you experience every day,” she says. “There’s this guy, Chris, that works at Taqueria Diana, and I walk by, wave, and chat with him, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I hope he wasn’t working!’ That was my first thought, more than losing my things. I didn’t have my ID on me or anything like that, and I wasn’t even wearing socks. A woman started talking to me, and I was like, ‘I don’t even have socks, and I don’t have any ID,’ and she was like, ‘Here, this is all the cash I have. You’re going to need this in the next little bit of time.’ ”
Twenty-five hundred miles away, in California, Public Access TV were in the final stretch of their tour when they awoke to the news.
“We’re three hours behind you, and we’re on tour, so we’re not exactly waking up early — I think Ben [Goldstein] our manager woke me up and said, ‘You gotta get up!’ ” says Public Access TV’s guitarist, Xan Aird. “We pulled up NY1 on our computer and just watched the news and watched our building collapse on live television, which was pretty surreal. Our phones were all exploding with calls and texts with a lot of support. It’s amazing; it’s like a paradox. We knew our upstairs neighbor and we knew the downstairs deli guys, but if we were there, I’m sure we’d all be becoming friends and banding together. That’s the amazing thing about New York.”
The space at 123 Second Avenue was big enough to be split between Public Access TV, their manager Goldstein’s company, Total Recall Management, and Donald Cumming of the NYC band the Virgins. Aird considered the place (sometimes nicknamed “123,” “the clubhouse,” or, when it was just the guys, “Boys Town”) an anachronism that hosted decades of New York music.
“It was at a crossroads for so many different people,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been getting so many texts and calls, because so many people have been in that apartment and come through and crashed there, made music there, hung out there; it’s just…it was a pretty amazing place in time, and now it no longer exists, which we’re still processing.”
At the base of their apartment was the Belgian-inspired Pommes Frites restaurant, and while Aird was familiar with the popular spot, another perished local business stood out to him and his band.
“We’re really heartbroken about our deli, Sam’s Deli,” he says. “They shared a basement and backroom with Pommes Frites. We’ve known those guys for a long time, and they’ve taken care of us. We could go down there when we were broke and they’d give us credit all the time because we were neighbors. And that doesn’t happen in Manhattan anymore. We all had a tab there, all the time, and they were very cool about it. Vic is the owner, and we knew his family, we knew his sons, his wife; I haven’t heard from him, but I just hope those guys are OK [now that] he lost his livelihood. It’s pretty tragic.”
Public Access TV are still in California and are plotting their return so they can begin to rebuild, but Aird says they’re tackling the situation as best they can.
“We do feel an urgency to get back. I’ve only seen what happened and the aftermath on computer screens, so I think when we get there and see it in real life it will really, finally hit home, and we’re just going to have to figure it out,” he says. “We’re trying to look at it as a new start, a fresh start.”
A day after the event, a donation page for Gibson popped up on GoFundMe.com, and before the weekend’s end it had surpassed the desired amount two times over. She’s beyond humbled by the outpouring of support, but quickly directs attention to her roommates Matt and Nora Brooks as well as other neighbors. Matt is a puppeteer who has worked with Jim Henson and Laika Studios and was using their apartment as a space and set for a Web series, his first personal creative endeavor.
Though she lost her classical guitar (the only guitar she uses, it has appeared with her for every recording and show), Gibson longs for her lost, priceless personal notebooks.
“The thing that’s most, most sad for me is when I moved to New York I brought all my notebooks where I write and work on songs, capture thoughts, quotes, ideas, and writing my observations of the world that eventually get distilled down into songs or writing,” she says. “I always thought of myself as a collector, but I was thinking about it today, how it’s possible that the thing wasn’t what I wrote down — the more important thing is just that practice of being an observer.”
Gibson says her first purchase after the explosion was a toothbrush, but adds, “I bought a notebook before I bought toothpaste.”
When recalling the moment she was escaping the burning building, Gibson was met with a powerful perspective.
“Thinking about that moment going down the stairs and not knowing what I was running into, it was clear to me that I love a lot of people and it had never been so clear that objects and possessions aren’t a big deal. It was a profound experience, and I’ll [think] about it often and forever,” she says.
But before she pens a new song about the experience, there’s something she has to do first.
“I think right now the thing that has been the most compelling piece of work is writ[ing] a thank-you note. That’s what’s next: a long thank-you note to everybody.”