Blast by developer ignites a neighborhood's fears

Detonation is temporarily halted for officials to study the safety aspects; explosion goes off without a hitch

By:Jennifer A. Katz

December 28, 2000

Five hundred pounds of explosives were detonated at 10 a.m. on Dec. 22 on land that will house developer Dan Neducsin's newest apartment complex. The explosion ended a four-day maelstrom of outcries from the community, which was not notified until the last minute.

Sharon Brill-Downs was at home on the morning of Dec. 19, when a representative from Explo-Tech, the company contracted to handle the explosion knocked on her door. He informed the Fleming St. resident that the blasting was to commence in 45 minutes. Brill-Downs, an active community member who had opposed Neducsin's complex from the beginning, immediately started calling community members and city officials in an attempt to block the company from proceeding with the explosion. Fearful that her efforts would not work fast enough, Brill-Downs sat on the field where the blasting was set to occur.

Representatives from Explo-Tech persuaded Brill-Downs that it wasn't safe for her to stay on the property with the explosives already planted in the ground. Brill-Downs realized that she could hold up the explosion and ensure her safety if she moved to the curb, which she did.

After a series of phone calls and discussions, Councilman Michael Nutter was successful in staying the explosion until further inquiry could be made as to the safety of the operation. For Brill-Downs and her neighbors, safety was only one concern. "He [Neducsin] had specifically said at several community meetings regarding this project that there would be no blasting," said Brill-Downs, "He even testified to that effect at the zoning board hearing." The two day stay allowed the residents and the larger community to rally, calling meetings and gathering information from experts from the Philadelphia Bomb Squad and the Department of Licenses and Inspections, who issued the permit allowing the explosion.

Neighbors were swayed by the bomb squad's explanation that to remove the materials would be extremely dangerous, potentially causing the explosion instead of deterring it. The bomb squad representative also informed the group that with the weather conditions as they were, wet from the snow, there was a risk that the materials could shift and thus explode as well. The city agreed to give the residents notice and distributed letters explaining what was going to happen including a number for residents to call if they had questions.

As a result of the community outcry, the Department of Licenses and Inspections has vowed to change its policy so that no same day permits would be given for explosions - a point that has many eyebrows raised. By the time the residents of Fleming Street were notified that the explosion was to take place, the materials were already imbedded in over 30 holes, between eight and 18 feet deep in the soil. Many officials and residents were left wondering if the explosives were already in the ground when the permit was issued. City officials are expected to investigate that claim further along with a claim that the explosive materials were transported without a permit.

For many residents in the neighboring streets there is no consolation for the developer's lack of sensitivity to what they consider an already overburdened neighborhood. "Two years ago a fire was allowed to burn because the hook and ladders couldn't turn on Fleming," raged Regina Costello of Dexter St., "The house was completely gone. How will the Fire Department fight a fire in these new apartments. "Again the rich guy gets his way." Geroge Hink, a lifelong resident of the area, echoes the same sentiment. "I was denied the right to use explosives several years ago when I wanted to put a pool behind my house," said Hink, "Mr. Arroyo Grill [Neducsin] comes along with his deep pockets and he's granted the right."

While the community recovers from the blast that shook the earth for only two seconds, Brill-Downs sees the struggle as worthy. "We have to fight. Even if we lose," she concluded, "We didn't win this one but we changed the way things will be done in the future." Reporter Ben Trayes contributed to this story.

©The Review2001