MANHATTAN — The building that caused the massive explosion in the East Village last week previously had a fire that stemmed from faulty wiring that was blamed on the landlord, court records show.
The owner of 121 Second Ave. was sued for nearly $76,000 in 2000 by a commercial tenant in the building who claimed his variety store was destroyed in a Sept. 27, 1997, blaze.
The tenant, Cho Hyun Soon, claimed in a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit that the fire started because electrical cable set fire to wooden wall studs on the first floor of the building.
The blame was based on the findings of a fire expert whom Soon hired to examine his store after the blaze and to speak to FDNY fire marshals who had also inspected the scene.
The expert concluded that at the time of the fire, the cable was not encased in any insulation — a violation of city code — and that heat generating from the wiring sparked the blaze. An initial FDNY report also blamed electrical wiring for the fire, but did not say who was at fault.
The landlord, Michael Hrynenko, denied blame for the fire in a legal filing responding to the lawsuit.
It’s unclear how the case was decided, but Soon’s store, A Little Bit of Everything, never reopened. He and Hrynenko were already embroiled in a rent dispute at the time of the fire.
However, Hrynenko subsequently filed a lawsuit against his insurer, Hermitage Insurance Company, which refused to cover Hrynenko in the lawsuit because he didn’t contact them immediately after the 1997 fire.
Hyrnenko only notified Hermitage after Soon filed the lawsuit, the insurer claimed in a court filing.
A Manhattan Supreme Court judge ultimately dismissed Hyrnenko’s case against Hermitage, but a deposition that he gave for the lawsuit provides a glimpse into his family’s longtime roots in the neighborhood.
In the deposition, Hyrnenko, a married father of four who was born in Poland and spoke Ukranian, said he worked in real estate management and owned five buildings in the East Village. Hrynenko died in 2004 and his wife now runs the buildings through holding companies, records show.
She did not respond to messages left at her home on Tuesday.
Two of the buildings — 119 Second Ave. and 121 Second Ave. — were destroyed in Thursday’s explosion. Investigators are looking into whether a gas main for a restaurant on the first floor of 121 Second Ave. was illegally tapped into to provide heat to residential tenants on upper floors.
Hyrnenko’s other three buildings are at 96 Second Ave., 117 Second Ave. and 46 E. 7th St. In his 2001 deposition, Hyrnenko said he had owned the buildings for about 25 years.
Ryszard Tylawski, who worked as a super for Hrynenko’s buildings for a decade, described his former boss to DNAinfo New York as a hard-working family man who was willing to show up at any hour to fix a problem even though he lived in Palisades, N.Y.
“He was a guy who would come at midnight, anytime,” Tylawski recalled. “He would be here in 20 or 30 minutes.”
Tylawski said Hrynenko “was a nice guy who always tried to help people” and credited the landlord with giving him a job in 1992, despite his inexperience and only being able to speak a little English.
At the time, Tylawski was 29 and had worked construction but never done building maintenance. A mutual friend introduced him to Hrynenko. Before hiring Tylawski, Hrynenko showed him the basement under the Kiev, a popular greasy spoon at 117 Second Ave. that the landlord also ran.
“I was really scared,” Tylawski recalled. “I had never seen so many pipes in the basement and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to take this job.’”
But Hrynenko persuaded Tylawski to come aboard and had the outgoing superintendent teach him the trade.
Tylawski said he left for another superintendent job around 2002. Two years later, Hrynenko died aged 60, leaving his wife, Maria, in charge of the family’s real estate.
Tylawski said when he quit working as a superintendent for Hrynenko, he helped find a replacement. The replacement worked for Hrynenko for eight years, Tylawski said.
Tylawski said he believed Hrynenko’s son, Michael Jr., was most recently working as the superintendent for the buildings.
The son, 29, was injured in Thursday’s explosion when he and Bronx contractor Dilber Kukic responded to complaints of leaking gas in the basement of 121 Second Ave.
Tylawski said that, when he was a boy, the son was always by Hrynenko’s side at the buildings, learning how to fix things.
“Any day off from the school, I saw him with the father,” he recalled.