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Desperate Drivers Clash After Fuel Delivery at Harlem Gas Station

By Jeff Mays | November 2, 2012 6:57am

HARLEM—Four hours, 12 blocks, $78 and a trunk load of patience.

That's what it took for Rafael Morato, 42, a nurse, to fill the tank of his white BMW to the brink of overflow at the Shell station at 232 W. 145th Street Thursday night.

"I started with a quarter tank and now I'm on reserve," said Morato at 9:30 p.m. as he finally pulled up to a pump at the packed station located between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard after a half-mile crawl through Harlem.

With the Coast Guard closing the Port of New York and New Jersey to commercial shipping to prevent damage from the devastating Hurricane Sandy, gas is in short supply in the tri-state area.

Massive power outages mean many gas stations with fuel don't have the power to pump.

The deadly storm has taken at least 40 lives in the city so far. Approximately 600,000 New Yorkers are still without power. Motorists have been standing in line for hours to fill up their vehicles or— for those whose car petered out before making it to the pump— gas cans.

The waiting has led to aggravating and even dangerous situations like the one in Queens where a man was arrested for pulling a pistol on another man who complained about him jumping the gas line.

In Harlem, frayed tempers led to aggression.

"I'm gonna drop you. I'm gonna put you right on your back," a man at the 145th Street Shell station yelled at another he accused of skipping the line Thursday night.

Another woman said the alleged line skipper was pretending to not understand English so as not to comply with increasingly angry requests to move back.

"They got a delivery right before noon. Since then, It's been a mad house," said Chauncey Holman, 29, a gas attendant.

Between pushing cars that had run out of gas and directing traffic, Holman witnessed several near fist fights. The cashier, juggling fists full of $50 and $100 bills, told customers he had never experienced a night like this one.

Before long, police came to contain the line. Two officers at 145th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard directed cars into a single lane of traffic leading to the mid-block gas station. The line stretched back east to Frederick Douglass Boulevard and then extended south on the avenue until at least 132nd Street.

It took five police officers to bring order to the desperate drivers.

Several Harlem gas stations had "No Gas" signs, including one on 125th Street and Second Avenue and another on 110th Street and Central Park North. Asked how word spread that his station had gas, Holman said: "It only takes one person."

For Morato, the word came from a cab driver in the Bronx, where he'd already visited five dry gas stations.

"I'm a nurse. I have to get to work. It's mandated," said Morato about why he was willing to wait four hours to fill his tank.

Richie Reyes, 62, an executive protection specialist, used his GPS to go station to station before winding up on 133rd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard for what turned out to be a four-hour wait. He said he needed to drive to New Jersey for work and didn't want to get stranded.

"We'll all just have to have a little patience," said Reyes as he filled his tank. "It's just going to be a matter of time."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a transportation emergency Wednesday and announced fares on all mass transit would be waived. Sen. Chuck Schumer said Thursday the Coast Guard would partially reopen the port, which was closed to protect against the storm, to allow for fuel delivery.

“There are a number of factors that are causing gas shortages and massive lines at the pump, but one of the critical ones was simply a lack of supply," Schumer said in a statement.

"The port is open, the backlogged barges can begin to dock and gas and will begin to flow into New York again,” he added. 

Some motorists, like Morato, thought officials should have anticipated the fuel shortage and acted more quickly.

"Somebody messed up," he said.

Others, like Arlene Holmes, 44, a corrections officer who lives in Harlem, disagreed despite her situation.

She parked her Chrysler SUV at 151st Street and Convent Avenue just before it ran out of gas.

Holmes was at the station with her brother and four gas containers for two hours to get $36 worth of gas or 10 gallons, just enough to last her until fuel supplies arrive, she said.

"Who can we blame? We can't blame Mother Nature," said Holmes.