BY COUNCILMEMBER COREY JOHNSON
September 13, 2017
The night of September 17, 2016 will forever be seared into my memory. It was a night in which the world’s attention was focused on a relatively inconspicuous block in Chelsea, and our community was tested like never before. It was a night when our community narrowly avoided a potentially devastating loss of life.
It was pleasant mid-September Saturday night; the kind of night that reminds you that summer doesn’t truly end on Labor Day. After having dinner with a friend at Trestle on 10th Ave., I began walking east on W. 23rd St. When I reached Ninth Ave., the night’s quiet was shattered by a deafening sound: BOOM! The ground shook under my feet as I and those around me stopped in our tracks. We exchanged knowing looks. It was clear that we shared the same initial thought: terrorism.
Though I couldn’t see the source, the explosion had come from the east. I instinctively walked in that direction as I called Deputy Inspector Brendan Timoney of the NYPD’s 13th Precinct. He was already aware of the incident and en route to the scene.
At W. 23rd St. and Seventh Ave., emergency responders were already on site and the NYPD had begun to cordon off the block. Within minutes, a large police, fire, and EMT presence occupied the neighborhood. The intersection was thick with emergency vehicles and a growing crowd of concerned onlookers were assembling on the street corners.
The explosion had occurred within a construction dumpster immediately in front of VISIONS at Selis Manor/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, on the north side of W. 23rd St., between Sixth and Seventh Aves. The NYPD was fairly certain early on that the explosion was man-made. I remember that only a truly sick individual would intentionally target this population. It was also puzzling: This location makes little sense as a target for terrorism. A midblock dumpster on a street with moderate pedestrian traffic in a partially residential area didn’t seem to make sense. This wasn’t a landmark or tourist destination. This wasn’t Times Square or the World Trade Center. It was just a regular New York City street.
A tremendous feeling of relief swept over us when we learned that there were no initial reports of casualties. But we knew that this could change, and prayed that it wouldn’t. The police continued to widen the secure area surrounding the site of the attack. Bystanders were ushered toward W. 22nd and 24th Sts. Patrons of nearby sidewalk cafes on the avenues were asked to leave the restaurants immediately. Firmly in control of the scene, it was clear that the NYPD’s extensive training for this type of situation had prepared them for a well-executed response.
A sobering sight was a unit of heavily armed antiterrorism forces in body armor with what appeared to be automatic weapons. It made me cognizant of the nightmare scenario for which they were prepared.
FDNY Chaplain Reverend Stephen Harding, who is also pastor at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea, arrived at the scene. I was struck by the realization that he was on site to potentially deliver last rites. Nonetheless, his presence was indeed comforting amidst the very tense scene.
One of my most important functions as a City Councilmember is to help disseminate important information to the public. I tweeted what I knew as information became available. My cell phone rang with NY1, CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets seeking accurate and up-to-date information from the site. The surrounding subway stations were evacuated and service was suspended. Residents were asked to remain clear of the area. Residents of the affected block were asked to shelter in place. The number of those injured would eventually climb to 31. Thankfully and remarkably, none of these injuries were grievous and there were no reported fatalities.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and I connected with the Mayor’s staff within a secure area in the intersection. The Mayor and Police Commissioner O’Neill, who had just been sworn into his new role two days before, were on their way.
When the Mayor and Police Commissioner arrived, my colleagues and I were all escorted onto W. 23rd St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. and from a distance we witnessed the mangled remains of the dumpster and the damaged building facades for the first time. The world’s press corps had converged on this one spot to hear from the Mayor and Police Commissioner and a host of Homeland Security officials; people who knew more about what had happened than perhaps anyone.
It was around this time that news of a secondary device in Chelsea began trickling in. As we had learned from 9/11, misinformation abounds in the chaos following an attack. But officials soon confirmed that a suspicious device had been discovered on W. 27th St., between Sixth and Seventh Aves. Residents of the block were told to shelter in place while the bomb squad investigated.
We would later learn that an undetonated explosive device had indeed been spotted by a vigilant Chelsea resident named Jane Schreibman, who saw a strange object on her block and reported it. It would turn out to be an improvised device that was abandoned by the terrorist. Reports of undetonated devices at NJ Transit stations in New Jersey would also prove to be true. Again, the loss of life could have been devastating had this plan been carried out as intended.
Night became day as hints of the sun crept over the rooftops to the east. The following hours and days blurred together as I sought to assure and provide information to my constituents and assist the residents and small businesses directly affected by the bombing. We did what we could to help the community bounce back. The following weekend, my staff and I organized a Small Business Crawl on W. 23rd St. Hundreds of New Yorkers came out to patronize businesses that were either damaged by the bombing or closed in its aftermath.
What I remember most from that time after the bombing, however, are the ways in which New Yorkers rose up to support and protect one another. The Malibu Diner, for example, served free, hot meals to the residents of Selis Manor when they couldn’t use their own facilities. It was an honor to present the Malibu Diner with a City Council Proclamation the following week at City Hall.
Even now, I become emotional when I remember scores of New Yorkers running toward, not away from, the sound of the blast, in case there was some way they could help.
The lowest moments and cruelest acts of humanity also inspire the greatest and most incredible acts of love and caring. We’ve seen that in the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes in Texas and Florida. We saw it in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001. And we certainly saw it last year in Chelsea.