On occasion, an event binds the city’s seemingly disparate communities, a reminder that for all its enormity, New York has an uncanny ability to connect people, whether in triumph or tragedy.
Nixon Figueroa, an East Harlem resident who works at a building on the Upper West Side, welcomed that collective embrace recently, when dozens of the building’s tenants filled the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on West 96th Street for his son’s funeral. Nicholas Figueroa, 23, was one of two people killed in the explosion that ripped through a building on Second Avenue in the East Village last month.
“It’s great that we have people like that, that will come out to a tragic event like this,” Nixon Figueroa said outside of 219 West 81st St., where he is a maintenance worker. “The good thing is that they’re caring, they’re open to what happened because they have kids, and then it’s a tragedy because it was my son, and he died over nothing.”
Investigators have said the explosion was caused by an illegally tapped gas line.
Nicholas Figueroa, 23, was about to graduate from Buffalo State with a degree in forensic psychology and planned to join either the city’s police or fire departments, said his father. He was on a date at Sushi Park on Second Avenue when the explosion occurred March 26. A busboy at the restaurant, Moises Ismael Locón Yac, 26, was also killed in the blast.
Nixon said his son was excited about the date with Theresa Galarza, also 23, who survived the blast. Nixon and his wife, Ana Lanza, dropped Nicholas off at the 96th Street subway stop on Lexington Avenue like they always do.
“I told him, ‘be careful, I love you.’ He told me, “don’t worry about it, dad, I’m strong.’ He said ‘I love you too,’ and he left, and I never saw him again. Just with that, it kills me,” Nixon said of his last words with his son. “At least I said what I said to him.”
Nixon said about 40 tenants from 219 West 81st St. came to Nicholas’ funeral. Nixon’s brother, Marcello Figueroa, who worked as a superintendent in the same building for over 23 years before moving to a nearby building on West End Avenue, said he too appreciated the outpouring of support for his family.
“It’s touching because people I’ve worked with in the past were kind enough to show their feelings and sympathies, and concern for the family, which is important,” Marcello said.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who also attended the funeral, said she did so to be supportive of the community, and because the church is in her former City Council district.
She said she was surprised when other West Siders, friends and neighbors she’s known for years, began filling the pews.
“I sit down in the front and all of a sudden other West Siders, older women, started sitting next to me,” Brewer told The Spirit. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
Brewer said West Siders’ presence at the funeral showed how, particularly in that community, residents rally around one another regardless of circumstance.
“The whole West Side knew the family,” said Brewer. “It was very special to me to see all these different people hugging and supporting each other. It was almost too much, I couldn’t quite believe it all.”
Nixon said his family is broken at losing Nicholas so senselessly.
“It’s heartbreaking for my family, especially my wife. We’re in pain every day. We want him back home but he ain’t going to come back,” said Nixon. “And yes, this has to stop. Hopefully with this event people will open their eyes and start reaching out to their landlords to stop this.”
Last year, a natural gas explosion in an East Harlem residential building, in a neighborhood near the Figueroas’, claimed eight lives. Officials blamed a gas leak for the March 12, 2014, incident.
Nixon said his family keeps Nicholas’ ashes in an urn adorned with an eagle flying over a mountain.
“All I have of my son is three pounds of bone left that they crushed to bring him home in an urn,” Nixon said. “A 155-pound, chiseled, beautiful, good-looking boy – that’s all I have of my son.”
Nicholas was the eldest of four boys, Nixon said.
“My son was the most beautiful thing anyone could have for a child,” he said. “I have three other boys and I have to be strong enough to continue on for them, and especially my wife.”
Nixon said his family visited the site of the East Village explosion on April 22.
“We went to where my son was located, and we made a hole and put some flowers there, and some rocks,” said Nixon. “The next day, Thursday, we put some pictures of him on the panels of plywood that are there so people could remember my son.”
Nicholas Figueroa would have turned 24 on June 10.
“We’re going to go over there with balloons and cake,” Nixon said. “And whoever wants cake, they’re welcome to have some. That’ll be June 10, and we’re just going to take it from there.”