Explosion in Manhattan

April 22, 2014 | CUNY Matters, The University

For one student, another close call amid the tragedy

Ruben Borrero, a BMCC student, at the site of the explosion that destroyed the buildings where three generations of his family had lived.

Ruben Borrero, a BMCC student, at the site of the explosion that destroyed the buildings where three generations of his family had lived.

If Ruben Borrero had been in class at BMCC’s Fiterman Hall on 9/11 when terrorists struck the World Trade Center … If he had been at home on March 12, 2014, when a gas explosion destroyed his home in East Harlem … If chance hadn’t treated him so well …

Borrero, now 32, was on his way to Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2001 when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. “When I got off the train, there was a bar open and I saw the TV screens,” he said. “I called two people I knew at school to make sure they were fine. The dust was awful. One of my classes was at Fiterman,” which was so heavily damaged that it had to be demolished and rebuilt.

For him, as for many students, faculty and staff, the attack had long-lasting effects. Although he was in his third semester, “After that, I wasn’t interested in going back to the area. It was just scary.”

Over the next decade, Borrero worked and for a while attended the for-profit DeVry University, “but computer networking wasn’t for me.” The turbulent economy continually thwarted his work life. “Every job I’ve ever been in, I’ve risen to management level, but I didn’t have a degree — any credentials — and that’s a problem. I went back to BMCC in January because I have to make sure that never happens again.” He shifted his focus to business.

He was dropping off his daughter at a babysitter’s when the explosion leveled the tenements at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. in Manhattan, killing eight, including a CUNY public safety officer and a student. Borrero’s dog also perished, and dozens of people — including his family — were left homeless.

He first heard of the tragedy when a friend called to say, “Something’s happened on your block.” Phone calls assured him that his sister, Kimberly, 16, was safe in school and his mother, Sarah, was at work at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Borrero’s grandparents were living at 1646 Park Ave. before his parents took an adjacent apartment after moving from South Carolina, where his father was in the military. “They moved up here and had me. My entire life has been in this building,” he says. “My family had well over half a century in that building.”

By the 1990s, those two buildings, along with one or two on Madison Avenue, were the only ones standing on the block. The rest had been demolished, and rebuilding began about 2000.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Frank Sanchez says, “When you think of how large the CUNY community is, you can bet that out of any 100 people in New York, five to seven faculty, staff or students will be impacted by anything major that happens. That’s the case here.”

Killed were Griselde Comacho, a public safety sergeant at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work and Alexis (Jordy) Salas, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who previously attended Borough of Manhattan Community College. Among those left homeless were Salas’ wife, Jennifer Mendoza-Salas, a student at City College, and brother Santiago Salas, a student at Bronx Community College, and another student who asked to not be identified. A Guttman Community College student was kept out of a nearby building pending repairs.

Sanchez says campus counseling centers contacted affected students and the family of Sgt. Comacho, offering counseling, emergency funds and college essentials like laptops and textbooks. He adds that the University coordinates with the mayor’s office, the Red Cross and community-based organizations to ensure that those affected by disaster get help.

Borrero says his family is starting from scratch. “I might have a duffle bag of clothes at my brother’s on Long Island, but my mother and sister had just what they walked out with that day. When someone gives you a toothbrush, you realize you do not have one to call your own.”

New York Presbyterian Hospital arranged for his family to stay at a residential hotel while the city tries to arrange permanent housing. “We’ve had overwhelming support, with people donating stuff, and we’re trying to build up little by little,” he says.

Borrero says his professors have been understanding. “I tried my best to study for a midterm [right after the explosion], but it was so hard to focus. My professor said, ‘I don’t know why you even bothered. You can take it next week in my office.’ I promised my mother and a vice president of the college that I’ll finish. It’s just going to be more difficult than I’d anticipated.”

TO HELP

Hunter College set up a fund to support all of the families and individuals whose lives were affected by the March 12 blast. Donations can be made at cuny.edu/march12