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Units unrecognizable in blast’s aftermath

Nearly two weeks after a gas explosion tore through Fairmont Hall in Flushing, there is little evidence of the families that once called the apartments on the second floor home.

Light crawls through cracks in boarded-up windows, illuminating flame-charred walls. Wood saturated by fire hoses drips water through plastic tarps that line the ceiling. Singed paint chips litter the floor where Edgar Zaldumbide, who remains in a coma, and his 23-month-old daughter, Melissa, played together less than a month ago.

Stepping over what used to be a wall between apartments 2N and 2P, the building's business manager, David Pace, pointed to a blackened swath of wood on the floor.

"There was a couch there that must have ignited, so there was some burning to the floor," he said, while giving TimesLedger Newspapers a tour of the building Tuesday afternoon.

"You see those stories about towns in the Midwest that get hit by tornadoes, where people's houses are destroyed and they lose everything," he said. "That's what happened to these little homes here."

Nearly half of the residents of 147-25 Sanford Ave. were left homeless when an explosion ravaged apartment 2P on July 25, completely destroying five adjoining apartments and seriously damaging another half dozen.

Zaldumbide, who lived in the apartment, remained in a medically induced coma Tuesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan while his daughter was recovering from first- and second-degree burns that covered most of her body.

Meanwhile, fire marshals said Tuesday the cause of the blast was still under investigation.

By Tuesday, all but 12 of the apartments in the 90-unit building were certified for occupancy by the city Department of Buildings. Of those, Pace said he expects seven more should be repaired within two months, while the five most severely damaged may not be ready until January.

The city Department of Housing was working with residents of the 12 apartments that will require long-term repairs this week to find them local housing.

Though residents were slowly trickling back to the building, Tenant Association President Bellanira Sanchez said that many, herself included, are apprehensive.

"I can go back to my apartment, but I do feel scared whenever I'm back in there," said Sanchez, who lives in apartment 2D. "I'm scared the building is going to explode again. There are a lot of children in the building, and when they see it now, they don't want to go back in."

Pace and the building's ownership group, All Wall Construction Corp., have been the targets of criticism, both from residents like Sanchez and City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), who blasted them last week for allegedly discarding personal belongings from damaged units and initially not granting them access to their homes.

"The callous disregard with which these residents have been treated is utterly reprehensible," Liu said. "At best, these actions are nauseating incompetence, and at worst, despicable cover-up of wrongful actions."

Pace, who was born in the building, said he was taken aback by the comments.

"I want these residents to get back to their homes as soon as possible," he said. "I was born in this building, I learned how to walk in this building. I truly do care. It's not just lip service."

Pace said an asbestos abatement company, A. Sarah International Corp., only removed items that were deemed to be contaminated with asbestos or that were charred beyond recognition and that they were only taken from the 12 apartments most seriously damaged.

He added that the city Department of Environmental Protection has deemed the air on all floors of the building to be safe. Additionally, Pace said residents who are missing items can file claims with the building's insurance company to potentially be reimbursed.

Pace said hot water was restored to the entire building July 29, while testing on the building's gas lines began Tuesday.

"It's going to be a long and diligent process," he said. "But that's our top priority right now, getting cooking gas back to all these apartments."

"It's a tragedy what happened here," he added. "But this has always been a great place to live and we're going to get it back there. It's just going to take time."

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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