House Explosion: Error or Fastest Demo in Hamptons History?

House fire in Water Mill
House fire in Water Mill, Photo: Oliver Peterson, Inset: The house before the fire, Courtesy Southampton Town

Old homes in the Hamptons are being torn down as fast as possible to make way for grand new McMansions during this current red-hot real estate boom. But sometimes people jump the gun.

An accidental jumping of the gun seems to have happened in Water Mill on February 11 when an entire old house dramatically exploded in a great fireball on Old Country Road just 200 feet north of Montauk Highway and 300 yards to the east of the Parrish Art Museum.

The 2,164-square-foot house had been home to a Mrs. McKeever but was sold to a Manhattan man named Michael Borrico in December for a reported $1.1 million. He immediately applied for a permit for interior demolition and a one-story addition and patio enclosure.

According to Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, the demolition application was waiting to be approved by the Landmarks and Historic District Board so it could proceed to the Building Department for approval. Houses more than 75 years old need landmarks approval for any type of addition or demolition. This one was still being reviewed by the landmarks board when it blew up.

Throne-Holst said two workers were apparently in the building preparing the house for demolition for when the permissions would come through. After all, there’s a lot you can legally do without a permit to prepare a house. They ought to have waited, it seems to me. “The utilities had not turned the gas off,” she told Newsday. The workmen, Rolando Perez, 40 and Abner Canel, 18, both of Riverhead, were found stunned and bloodied, sitting out on a snowbank by the roadside when the police rushed over after calls came from neighbors at 2:13 p.m. Ambulances were called, and the two men, accompanied by firemen, were able to walk to it, after which they were transported to a site where a helicopter could land to take them off to the emergency facilities at Stony Brook University Hospital. It seemed amazing that they had survived the explosion.

PHOTO GALLERY: Water Mill Fire – February 11, 2015

Two victims were injured in the explosion.
Victims receive treatment after the house explosion, Photo: Oliver Peterson

According to a hospital spokeswoman, both men are now listed in “good” condition and on their way to being discharged. It was reported since that Perez was carrying trash to a dumpster when the house went up and Canel was down in the basement. Both were thrown away by the explosion. Windows in a condominium adjacent to the house blew in, people were evacuated, and others as far away as a mile thought there was an earthquake or a bomb that had gone off.

The highway was closed for most of the rest of the day and parts of the house were still sitting up in a tree in the backyard of the property two days later.

A wide variety of investigative teams are looking into how a house being prepared for demolition could have exploded like this. It seems obvious to many that a gas pipe was cut somehow, the gas accumulated and up it went when a spark touched it off.

One of the teams investigating is from the New York State Public Service Commission. A spokesman for PSC, James Denn, said they wanted to know if “National Grid adhered to the PSC’s stringent regulations regarding the safe operation of the utility’s gas distribution system.”

The PSC has zero tolerance for violations and can fine utilities up to $250,000 or 0.03 percent of its annual revenue for a violation.

But perhaps the gas was not turned off because the demolition application had not been approved. The temperature was well below freezing at the time of the explosion. It’s against the law to turn OFF utilities without adequate notice in homes where people might be present and using them.

In any case, the house is surely the fastest teardown in Hamptons history and, someday, when the smoke clears from all the investigations, a new handsome McMansion will likely appear on this site.

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