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Lingering scars of a fateful night: Survivors of a Lake Grove blast are healing from severe burns, but emotional wounds prove harder to mend
[March 04, 2007]

Lingering scars of a fateful night: Survivors of a Lake Grove blast are healing from severe burns, but emotional wounds prove harder to mend

(Newsday (Melville, NY) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 4--On a hot August night in the quiet village of Lake Grove, seven young people sat in a basement apartment, laughing and talking and playing video games.

Then the room exploded.

A flash fire fueled by a gas leak consumed the room, searing flesh, charring windpipes, and scarring bodies and lives forever.

Seven staggered out. Five survived.

The fire didn't just burn flesh and hair. It also destroyed the sense of invincibility that is the particular domain of the young.

It left markings of their clothes etched permanently on their limbs.

It left some incapable of opening a water bottle.

It left the least injured haunted that she wasn't burned as badly as the rest.

The seven were among the roughly 300 people burned badly enough each year to be admitted to Long Island's two burn centers. They were the largest mass casualty ever admitted to the Stony Brook University Medical Center burn unit. Each faced possible death.

Burns are particularly complex injuries. Vital fluids seep out. Airways swell shut. Body temperature drops and bacteria invade wounds. Those who survive face deep psychological scars along with the physical ones.

Those who lived face futures none of them expected, futures that place surgeries and doctors' prognoses before colleges and careers.

Their lives are divided into "before" and "after," and only now are they discovering how much they have changed.

When one looks in the mirror, he doesn't see the face he used to have. Another cannot bring herself to light a gas stove. A third lies awake at night, traumatized by his memories, listening for sounds of danger. And as they all search for who to blame, they must grapple with the troubling results of the police investigation, which points to one of the seven.



For the seven, Aug. 1 had been a typical summer day.

Kevin Gianninoto, David Greenridge, Mari Gardaphe and Mike Goble were hanging out as they often did at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove.

Kevin, 20, and David, 18, were longtime friends who lived minutes apart in Nesconset. Kevin, a husky and muscular electrician's assistant with a penchant for techno music and video games, often played handball and basketball with David, an aspiring architect and high-school student in Smithtown.

Mari, 19, and Mike, 21, seemed to spend more time together than apart. They met as Mari was about to leave for Chicago to attend DePaul University. Their relationship bloomed when she came back to live in Bellport and study English at Stony Brook University. Mike, who lives in Hauppauge, worked loading pallets at a medical factory there but hoped to become a chef.

The friends often went to David's house, where his father would cook elaborate backyard barbecues, or to Kevin's house to listen to music and have CD wars, tossing the discs at each other.

August 1 was a hot, sticky day -- the temperature was nearly 90 degrees at 7 p.m. -- and the youths dressed lightly in cotton shorts, t-shirts and tank tops. Kevin wore a hat pulled across his forehead. Mari wore a miniskirt and flip-flops. Only David wore long sleeves and jeans.

At the mall, they met up with Michael Gerenstein, 21, and Christian Tramontano, 17. Kevin, who lived with his aunt, was staying in Michael's basement apartment in Lake Grove while she was on vacation.

Mari and Mike had never met Michael or Christian, but Kevin was eager for the group to see Michael's place.

They arrived at 28 Sarah Dr. around 10:30 p.m. Mike and Michael were in Mari's black Honda Accord. Kevin, David and Christian were driven by Sean Raynor, 24, of Sound Beach, a friend of Christian's who had just ended his server shift at a kosher deli in the mall.

They walked down the stairs and passed through the only door to the basement. A peculiar, overpowering odor hung in the L-shaped room. Mike and David sniffed the air, then looked at each other.

"It smells kind of weird," Mike said, "like bug spray."

Michael apologized for the smell, pointing to a large wet stain on the carpet from the dripping air conditioner.

"It didn't smell like mildew," Sean recalled. "It didn't smell like gas."

Still, everyone stifled their discomfort and settled in.

"We didn't really say anything," Mari said. "We were going to hang out a little while, see the apartment. We weren't going to stay there all night or anything."

Mari and Mike sat together at the edge of the bed. Kevin took a chair near the television and played video games on his Xbox. David, Michael and Christian sat on the couch while Sean stood by the door.

Mari talked with Michael.

"He seemed like a really sweet guy," Mari said. "All he talked about was his girlfriend."

About 20 minutes after the group arrived, someone -- Sean thinks it was Michael Gerenstein -- decided to smoke a cigarette. He pulled out a lighter and held it up to his face.

Then Sean saw a wall of flames.

"I saw everything come out of the lighter and just surround the walls and ceiling," he said.

Mari saw the color blue and felt a sudden flash of heat on her legs. She pulled a blanket from the bed over herself. Mike heard a "whoosh" and saw flames coming toward him. He turned and dove on Mari to shield her.

The smell Michael said came from the wet carpet was natural gas, which police later said had been leaking in the apartment for three days, gradually filling the room.

All it needed to ignite was a tiny spark.

Quickly, the apartment grew dark and thick with smoke. They needed to find a way out -- fast.

One by one, the friends stumbled toward the door and ran up the stairs that, essentially, acted like a chimney. All seven escaped, only to emerge on the lawn to face new tortures.

Though their clothes offered a measure of protection, all suffered second- or third-degree burns.

"My skin was peeling off," Mike said.

Frantically, they went door to door trying to get help.

A police dispatcher reported a 911 call at 11:02 p.m. Then police received an update -- the caller saw a woman's body on fire in front of 28 Sarah Dr. Another call described a man with bloodied hands knocking at 19 Sarah Dr.

The Centereach Fire Department responded first, followed by others, including the Nesconset Fire Department.

Nesconset chief A.J. Anderson described the scene as "mass confusion."

"Their skins were peeling off as they were running down the road," he said. "They were running to try to get help. They wouldn't stay in one place."

Flames flicked out of the basement as Mike drifted in and out of consciousness. Climbing onto a stretcher, he held his burned hands up gingerly so they wouldn't brush against the mattress.

"Don't close your eyes!" a rescuer urged Mike. "Don't close your eyes!"

But when the chilled air of the ambulance touched Mike's raw skin, pain shot through him. His eyes closed. They didn't open for five weeks.

Kevin thought his life would end in the ambulance.

"I was throwing up, screaming that I was going to die," he said.

Mari suffered the least severe injuries, but panicked as rescuers passed her by to treat the others.

"I was freaking out. I was shaking," she said. "You could see Dave's face was burned. Kevin's. My hair was falling out. And the smell of burning hair, burning skin."

Rescuers took the victims by ambulance the five miles to Stony Brook, which has the only burn unit in Suffolk County.

At the hospital, parents found some of their children had swollen heads and lips puffed to six times their size.

"I just ran on empty, in shock. Is this real? You can't believe it," said Kristi Gianninoto, Kevin's aunt. "The trauma doctor said it was life-threatening. I had asked the doctor, 'When is it not life-threatening?' He said, 'When he walks out the door of the hospital.'"

All but Mari were connected to ventilators. And all but Mari were unconscious by the time their burns were dressed, so only she remembers the agonizing process of nurses showering her and removing burned, dead skin from her legs.

"The shower was so much worse than the fire itself," Mari said. "I was screaming at the top of my lungs."

Mari remained conscious the entire two weeks of her stay in the burn center, waiting for the others to awaken from their comas. Two never did.

On Aug. 6, five days after the explosion and a week after his 17th birthday, Christian Tramontano died. The Port Jefferson resident was burned on 70 percent of his body, according to the Suffolk County Police Department's death report.

Three days later, Michael Gerenstein died. Police said half of his body had been burned.

The parents of the other children resolved not to tell them right away for fear it would affect their recoveries. But eventually, they found out.

"People I had been hanging out with that night, two of them passed away," she said. "It was a reality check."

Among the survivors, Kevin suffered the worst injuries -- 70 percent of his body was burned, including his face, arms, legs, chest and upper back. Despite being young, strong and healthy, his chance of dying was greater than 80 percent, said Dr. Steven Sandoval, head of the burn center.

David had deep burns on his hands, face, neck and "very significant airway injuries," Sandoval said, and Sean had severe burns on his arms and hands.

Mike was burned on his arms, hands, legs and stomach. He nearly died in the burn center, as his heart filled with fluid and his kidneys failed, he said.

"Nobody would tell me how bad a shape he was in, because they didn't want me to get discouraged," Mari said.

Mike woke up after five weeks in a coma and struggled to rise, unsure of where he was and thinking it was the day after the accident. He was shocked to find himself tethered to the bed by the tubes that fed and breathed for him.

Drowsy and disoriented, he looked over at a wall where someone had posted a photo of him and Mari.

He couldn't talk because a tracheotomy had taken away his voice. Tears welling, he tried to point at the picture.

"The last time I saw her," he said, "she was sitting on the curb, crying."

He had no idea how she was and he needed to see her for himself.

Several days later, a nervous Mari walked into his room. Beaming, she peppered him with questions.

"I kept forgetting that he couldn't talk," she said. "I would ask him questions and he would just look at me."

Even if he had been able to talk, Mike said later, "I don't think I would have said much, because I just couldn't stop crying."


Recovery was grueling.

"Unless you go through a burn, you don't know how bad it is," Mari said.

In a way, being unconscious was a blessing. Because when the survivors woke up, the pain began. The air hitting their raw skin and the sponges nurses used twice a day during dressing changes were excruciating.

Since so much of Kevin's body was burned, everything hurt.

For Mari, unwrapping her toes felt the worst. And when she tried to stand, the pain was so unbearable she didn't scream -- she howled.

"I heard sounds coming from her that I've never heard come from a human being," said her mother, Susan Gardaphe.

For Mike, the hardest part was his ear.

"It felt like my ear was coming off with the bandage," he recalled.

Mari was the first to be released from the hospital, on Aug. 14. Kevin was the last, on Sept. 19, seven weeks after the explosion.



As the victims were battling their injuries, a troubling question emerged.

Why had Michael Gerenstein's apartment blown up that night?

When Christian died, that question turned into a homicide investigation.

It was clear the fire had been fed by natural gas.

Colorless and lighter than air, natural gas also is odorless, so gas companies add mercaptan, an odorant. In a 1987 study in National Geographic, more than 40 percent of people could not identify its distinctive rotten-egg smell.

One friend of Michael's who was at the home for several days but left earlier on Aug. 1 told police he had noticed a "heavy gas odor" that got stronger that day.

Police found a hole in the flexible line that fed natural gas into the stove. They also found bullet holes in the refrigerator door, a charred .22-caliber rifle in the closet and a box of bullets under the kitchen sink.

Friends told police they had seen Michael shoot his rifle inside the apartment and that he had boasted of one shot going through the refrigerator into the wall.

Investigators believe one of the bullets pierced the refrigerator and punctured the gas line behind it, causing a slow release of gas over several days into the apartment.

The police concluded Michael's behavior was to blame.

"There is evidence to support the fact that the actions of Michael Gerenstein shooting the rifle in the apartment caused the bullet hole in the gas pipe. This caused the death of himself and Christian Tramontano," the police report stated.

Had Michael survived, said Det. Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick, "We would have charged him criminally," possibly with criminally negligent homicide or reckless endangerment.

The families of Christian Tramontano and Michael Gerenstein did not respond to requests for an interview.

Despite the conclusion of police, none of the five survivors blames Michael. The topic angers Kevin, who doesn't think the police's version makes sense. Mari and Mike don't, either.

Sean says he doesn't blame anyone.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "All I know is that it did happen."

David says he's not bitter.

"I'm not really angry. Shocked. But there's nothing I can do about it. I'm happy I got my life," he said, sitting with his parents in the family's living room. "Eventually I'll have the answers that I want."

But his father Jerome Greenridge, a disabled veteran with chiseled features, is furious.

"All I want is my son back to where he was," he said, as David examined his fingernails. "His future is his appearance. People judge you by your appearance. I want my baby back the way he was, or 99.9 percent that way."

Mike, Kevin, Sean and Christian's mother have filed notices of claim, the first step in a lawsuit, against the Village of Lake Grove, which cited the house's owner, Farry Sharif, for illegally renting out her basement as an apartment but did not shut the unit down. Kevin also is suing Sharif.

Sharif could not be reached, and her lawyers did not return calls for comment.



The five survivors struggle with their new lives. Their bodies are indelibly changed. The burns stop where the clothes began.

On Kevin's forehead, Sean's arms, David's hands, puckered red scars meet a line of healthy skin that had been covered by something as simple as a hat or shirt. The outline of Mike's watch is seared into his wrist.

David, never fond of photographs, shies away from the camera even more now. His skin is mottled from the scars, and might not fade back into its natural pigmentation.

"It bothers me," David said. "It still bothers me."

He should graduate from high school in June. After that, he wants to study architecture, as soon as his hands get stronger. His goal is to build his own house.

Sean briefly returned to work at the kosher deli, but was fired shortly after for what he calls a miscommunication. Meanwhile, he said he faces about $400,000 in medical bills, since he was uninsured at the time of the fire. Sean said Medicaid denied his claim in December.

Kevin said he has started writing a book about the fire. Thanks to ongoing therapy, he's now able to open some bottles and make his favorite peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches again, although cutting meat is a challenge and his signature is still a shaky scrawl.

He faces a long recovery.

"It's going to be years and years of surgery," he said, including a series of four operations beginning Wednesday to release the tightened skin that contorts his fingers.

Though his face has been altered drastically, he doesn't think people react differently to him.

"I like to see myself as normal, just like everybody else," he said.

But his friend Greg Ellinas notices a difference.

"In the mall, I can see some people turn and look at him and stare. I try to calm down, but it really gets me," Ellinas said.

Even some of Kevin's friends who were burned were taken aback at first.

"He scared me," said Mike, recalling the weeks he and Kevin spent together in rehabilitation. "It really bothered me. He would come into my room all the time. I wanted to go into his room. But when he talked to me, I would have to look the other way."

When Mari first saw Kevin, she said, "I stared at his eyes, so I wouldn't look at his face."

Now his friends are used to his appearance, and Kevin says he's the same kid he always was -- just a little more subdued.

"Not as cocky," he said. "Got a new look on life. It's not every day you almost die. Hopefully not."

The closest of the friends -- Kevin and David, Mari and Mike -- have drawn closer, bonded by the horrific accident and a sobering sense of their own mortality.

They've tried to recapture some of the normalcy of their old lives -- going out, eating together, hanging out in parking lots.

On Christmas Day, they went back to 28 Sarah Dr. with about 50 others to remember Christian and Michael. Kevin said a short prayer and several people lit candles.

What happened on the night of Aug. 1 still doesn't make sense to the five friends -- and they realize it might never.

"They always say, 'What are the odds?'" Mari said. "You can't just say it won't happen to me."

Mike said he always has known anything is possible. But, "I wasn't expecting this to happen," he said. "You find some way to learn to deal with it. That night, I was willing to sacrifice my life for hers."

At first, Mari didn't know Mike had shielded her from the flames. When she heard what he did, she cried.

"He sacrificed a lot for me," she said.

Mike can't return to work -- he's unable to lift anything heavy with his hands -- so he's preparing for his GED. They plan to get married someday, but Mike wants Mari to finish school first. She wanted to be a high school teacher. Now she's not sure.

Mari's father said the accident has "incredibly aged" her, and she still feels guilty she escaped with the fewest injuries.

The flashbacks of the explosion have subsided, she said. But she won't go near fires anymore, and can't stand the horror movies she used to watch with Mike."I am so incredibly jumpy, it's ridiculous," she said. "Any noise, any flashing light."

Mike says he isn't fazed by much, but he wishes he had started seeing a psychologist after the accident. "I think it's slowly starting to catch up to me now," he said.

Whenever Mari sleeps over at his house, he lies awake, straining to listen for any little creak or thump that might indicate danger.

He still loves to cook, but has to force himself to use his gas stove.

"I have to get over that fear of being near gas," he said.

But at night, when everything is silent, the "whoosh" of the furnace turning on is enough to send him flying out of bed, shaken by the echo of a ball of flame that consumed an apartment in Lake Grove not long ago.


Mari Gardaphe

Personal: 19, lives in Bellport, girlfriend of Mike Goble; attending Stony Brook University, studying English.

On Aug. 1: Visited the basement apartment at the urging of Kevin Gianninoto.

How injured: Suffered burns on 14 percent of her body, mostly her legs and feet; spent two weeks in hospital; released Aug. 14.

Recovery: Physical recovery nearly complete; has some scarring on feet and legs.

Michael Gerenstein

Personal: 21, lived in Lake Grove; resided in illegal basement apartment in Lake Grove since November 2005.

Before the fire: Police say he shot a rifle in his apartment days before the fire and punctured the gas line; a leak led to the explosion, authorities say.

How injured: Suffered burns on 50 percent of his body; died on Aug. 9.

Kevin Gianninoto

Personal: 20, lives in Nesconset; worked as an electrician's assistant; was planning to attend Suffolk Community College.

On Aug. 1: Was staying in Michael Gerenstein's basement apartment.

How injured: Suffered burns on 70 percent of his body; spent seven weeks in Stony Brook University Medical Center; was the last one to be released.

Recovery: Had at least five skin grafts; faces at least four more surgeries.

Mike Goble

Personal: 21, lives in Hauppauge; boyfriend of Mari Gardaphe; worked loading pallets at a medical factory in Hauppauge.

On Aug. 1: Visited the basement apartment at the urging of Kevin Gianninoto.

How injured: Suffered burns on arms, legs, hands and stomach. Spent seven weeks in the hospital.

Recovery: Had several skin grafts; burned skin is still delicate. Cannot lift heavy things with his hands.

David Greenridge

Personal: 18, lives in Nesconset; high school senior in Smithtown; wants to be an architect.

On Aug. 1: Was hanging out at Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove that day with Kevin Gianninoto; went with the group to Michael Gerenstein's apartment.

How injured: Suffered burns on 30 percent of his body. Spent five weeks in hospital; released Sept. 5.

Recovery: Had multiple skin grafts; undergoing occupational and hand therapy.

Sean Raynor

Personal: 24, lives in Sound Beach; worked at a kosher deli in Smith Haven Mall.

On Aug, 1: Friend of Christian Tramontano; went with the group to apartment after his shift ended.

How injured: Suffered burns on 30 percent of his body; spent four weeks in the hospital; released Aug. 29.

Recovery: Had multiple skin grafts. Faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills.

Christian Tramontano

Personal: 17, lived in Port Jefferson; friend of several people in the group; liked to hang out at Smith Haven Mall.

On Aug. 1: Went with the group to Michael Gerenstein's basement apartment that night.

How injured: Suffered burns on 70 percent of his body, including airway injuries; died on Aug. 6.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

Copyright (c) 2007, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.
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