How not to bomb your neighborhood deli

I went into the deli near my subway station in Harlem earlier this evening to buy a beverage and a pack of cigarettes. As I was paying, I heard someone yell “Go! Go!” and saw someone run in through the doorway and back out. At the same time, a flaming can of gasoline crashed into the middle of the store, about a yard away from me. Everyone in the room kind of stared in horror for a second, and I think I dropped my purchases as I backed away. The can had a burning rag stuck in it, and was leaking all over the place, so the flames started to spread quickly.

Some employees tried to douse the fire but only succeeded in spreading it further, and one man ended up running out of the store with his leg ablaze. I ducked behind a rack of potato chips in time to hear a loud “POP” as part of the can burst, sending more burning fluid all over the place. I decided that it was a Very Bad Idea to stay put, so I circled around the small room and made for the door. Unfortunately, there was so much burning detritus by this point that there were thigh-high flames in the way, so I decided to just run right through them. I made it out with just some gasoline burning itself off of my sneakers.

Nobody seemed to have any idea what the hell was going on, although one man said he saw “some crazy old guy” and there was general suspicion that it was a disgruntled patron of the deli. It’s a muslim-run establishment, but it didn’t seem to be a hate crime on the surface of it — just another crazy night in New York. I used my remaining adrenaline to help smother and stomp out the flames as they dwindled, and only the gas can was left burning by the time the fire department showed up. The most important part of the whole incident was that nobody really got hurt. Fortunately, it was a very amateurishly constructed gasoline bomb, and there were a bunch of locals around who were all very eager to help. Or try and help — please note that flammable garbage, racks of snack cakes and buckets of water are among the things you should NOT pour on a gasoline fire. On the plus side, I guess your average gasoline isn’t really designed to explode like movies would have you believe — at least not when it’s in unpressurized liquid form and puddling on the floor. It just burns a bunch, so you have to avoid getting it on you.

I am now 5% better at “running through fires,” something which I used to be fairly afraid of doing. I guess I think of this kind of thing as a learning experience, and the last year has been chock full of them. A little over a year ago, I was in a group of people who got pepper-sprayed by the NYPD for questioning their detainment of a young black man. Not long after, I was stalked and harassed all the way uptown from Times Square by a psycho loser who got mad when I wouldn’t give him my phone number, and only ran away when I went to get a subway station manager. Then in the spring, I managed to get mugged and scraped myself up trying to chase down the punk who robbed me.

I’ve lived here for over ten years now, and although I had one roommate who was mugged, I’ve never had such a spate of crazy semi-violent and violent incidents. It’s probably just the luck of the draw, and New York does tend to get a rowdier sometimes (moreso in the summer, but sometimes around the holidays) but who knows? Maybe things are getting worse, maybe they’re not. What crazy things happen in your neck of the woods?

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44 comments for “How not to bomb your neighborhood deli

  1. November 30, 2008 at 4:56 am

    holy crap. glad everybody made it outta there ok, and i will remember what you said about not pouring water on a gasoline fire. that’s the first thing i would’ve tried. (after peeing myself, of course.)

    which deli was this? i live on 116th & 8th, we might be neighbors.

  2. November 30, 2008 at 5:33 am

    It was at the St Nicholas Deli at 125th and Manhattan — just up the street from you, more or less!

    Yeah, water is always a bad idea for any kind of burning liquid that would float on water (think “oil slick”) since it just agitates the gas. I don’t know why those guys didn’t have a fire extinguisher handy. Ironically, there were cases full of soda which might have worked, due to the carbonation, but nobody thought of that. The whole thing would probably have been much less dramatic if nobody threw the exact wrong things on the fire.

  3. November 30, 2008 at 6:35 am

    If the fire hasn’t spread too much, you want to put a blanket on it, to starve the fire of oxygen. Of course, it has to be a blanket that doesn’t burn as soon as it get close to fire (wool should do, polyester is a bad idea).

    Sounds like a scary adventure.

  4. November 30, 2008 at 6:43 am

    geez! glad you all made it out more or less safely. about the getting worse question, i tend to think you’re right about the luck of the draw – that’s there’s a more or less constant level of this kind of thing and we just happen to come into closer contact with it every now and again. although, after living in a country with a pretty low crime rate for a while, i was surprised by how quickly i’d forgotten what a “normal” level of violence is to me, in terms of my own experience. getting harrassed by a bunch of teenagers during the short late-night walk home from my friend’s house in the neighborhood we both grew up in made me realize just how good i have it here, and how different that is from what i’m used to.

  5. November 30, 2008 at 6:57 am

    WHOA. That’s INSANE. I’m glad you’re OK and that the person who did this wasn’t too great at the whole “let’s bomb the deli” thing.

    As you might you know, I live in Amman, where there always seems to be tension in the air, although since the 2005 bombings, the city has been relatively safe (*fingers crossed*).

    The craziest things that happen to me usually involve some guy with nothing better to do following me around. It happens a lot, but I like to think I can handle it. So far.


  6. November 30, 2008 at 8:38 am

    That is very scary sounding! I will forever remember not to put water on a gasoline, hopefully I’ll never have to if you know what I mean! Never been to NYC before, but it’s on my list!

  7. November 30, 2008 at 8:38 am

    Oh my goodness. I am glad to read that you are okay.

  8. Em
    November 30, 2008 at 9:08 am

    Gasoline is volatile and can cause explosions either by vapor saturation of the surrounding air, or by ignition of a pressurized container. Neither situation applies to the deli fire. I am glad you are okay.

  9. November 30, 2008 at 9:28 am

    Jesus, Holly, I’m glad you’re okay. You seem so casual–like this sort of thing just happens in New York. It makes me glad I don’t live in a big city, but it also makes me think of comic-book New Yorkers, who just sorta glance up, see that Spider-Man is fighting the Green Goblin or something a few stories up, and carefully get out of the way of the raining chunks of burning concrete as they continue on their way to work. ‘Cause, y’know, yawn, look, it’s another crew of guys with lasers and coordinated outfits robbing the bank, again, give it a minute before the Iron Fist or someone shows up to take care of it.

    Seriously though, guys, water spreads an oil-based fire. Use extinguishers or smother it whenever possible.

  10. K
    November 30, 2008 at 9:38 am

    See, smoking is hazardous to your health. In the future, dump the cigs and find a water fountain.

  11. Bonn
    November 30, 2008 at 9:43 am

    This didn’t happen to me and I was rather glad it didn’t.

    On Friday some months ago, I was trying to watch DVDs. But my DVD player was broken (it had been acting weird anyway), so no such luck and my computer was set to the wrong region. So I figured on Sunday, my next day off, I would go out to the electric district and get a new one.

    Apathy got the better of me and I didn’t go. I stayed home and did laundry and nothing much of note. And then found out later that day that a man had driven a truck into a crowd of people in the electric district, gotten out, and started randomly stabbing passersby. Suddenly I was very happy to be so lazy. With the timing of the DVD player breaking, sometimes I wonder if I was meant to go there that day and something awful was supposed to happen to me.

    As for actual things happening to me, it’s a tossup between the guy following me on my way home for 30 minutes or the guy driving up on his scooter to show me his penis and then driving away. That’s Tokyo for you.

    That situation sounds awful and scary. You never really know what you’ll do in that kind of situation until it happens … and you hope you’ll do the right thing and not just freeze there until it’s too late.

  12. prefer not to say
    November 30, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Thanks for the always timely reminder about the uselessness of water for putting out oil-based fires.

    All that’s happening out here in the midwest is just your basic skidding to near-death experiences on icy roads. You take care of yourself, ok?

  13. Jha
    November 30, 2008 at 10:18 am

    My gosh Holly… you nearly DIE and you file this under “Weirdness“?? O_O

  14. Thomas
    November 30, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Holly, that’s way more contact with near-disaster than anybody but the most extreme trouble-seeker needs or deserves. I’m glad you’re okay and I wish you an extended streak of not nearly dying, not getting harrassed and not being hurt.

    This: “I am now 5% better at ‘running through fires,’” either shows that you have kept your sense of humor, or that gaming has taken up residence is a huge portion of your cognitive processes (or both).

  15. November 30, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Well, I’m kind of serious about the “better at running through fires” thing, although it’s funny to think about too. I wasn’t sure if I could do it since I AM kind of afraid of getting set on fire, no big surprise. But actually doing it wasn’t that bad, probably because the fires weren’t really large or hot enough to hurt me. It was definitely one of those “better act now and not freeze up” moments, and as silly as it sounds, I think I’m more inclined to think strategically about what to do in a split-second from all the time I’ve spent reacting to (completely unrealistic, but not entirely unapplicable) video game situations — back off, move behind cover, circle around, punch through the weakest point, etc.

    I don’t think it was a “nearly DIE” situation though. Em is right, gasoline doesn’t really explode in those circumstances (although it can in others, and I updated the original post to be more clear about that.) I suppose it would have been a lot more dangerous if it had been a glass container, a la Molotov, instead of a plastic carrycan, because the impact and breakage could have caused a lot more vapor to spread in the air. Since I was right next to it, I certainly could have been caught in such an explosion. Given the poor construction of the “bomb,” it was only the poor decision to throw water and garbage on it that really made the fires spread. We had it all extinguished in under 10 minutes, before the fire department showed up. The crazy part is that it wasn’t just an accident like a cooking grease fire or something like that which could have been much more dangerous — it was an ATTACK, however ill-conceived, which makes it seem more crazy and scary.

    I feel like New York is always a little prepared for craziness, maybe ever since 9/11. Down the street from me, the Jewish Theological Seminary is surrounded by big innocuous concrete posts. Only after a little pondering or investigation do you realize that they’re in place to deter truck bombings. And there’s always something a little insane going on, not too different from Tokyo — a “subway pusher” who goes along platforms pushing people into the tracks, for instance. That was fucking terrifying, even if he only got one or two victims, because it was so easy for it to happen at a vulnerable moment. Everyone started standing against the walls in the subway… well, for a few weeks. In a big city you’re always vulnerable to the good-will and non-psychopathy of your neighbors. If someone in a skyscraper on a busy street wanted to start dropping rocks on passers-by at lethal velocity, they might not even be caught unless they kept doing it.

  16. November 30, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I forgot the ending to this story!

    “I thought about staying to talk to the police, but there were plenty of other people who were starting to do that, so I just got on the subway. Then I bought myself a large bowl of nice ramen, relished it all to the very last drop, and proceeded to get drunk at a bar with friends while regaling them with firebombing tales. Then I went and saw a midnight showing of Labyrinth, which was very suitably escapist and fun. Wow, they sure show a lot of David Bowie’s package in that movie!! It ought to get its own credit.”

  17. SunlessNick
    November 30, 2008 at 11:46 am

    I’m glad you’re ok Holly – and that everyone else (and the Deli itself) are ok.

    What crazy things happen in your neck of the woods?

    There was a bomb scare at my local-but-one supermarket last week, but I don’t know if there was an actual bomb.

  18. November 30, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I’m glad nobody was seriously injured but, Jesus, a molotov cocktail tossed into a NYC deli?

  19. November 30, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Holy shit, Holly! I’m glad you’re all right!)

  20. November 30, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    What crazy things happen in your neck of the woods?

    Well, there seems to be daily shootings in Denmark at the moment, or at least weekly. Which is noteworthy considering how few people have guns. It’s a drug-related conflict between some gangs (Hell Angels and another gang).

    No hand grenades or rocket launchers though, unlike last time similar stuff was going on (between two biker gangs).

    It has also been a while since the last street riots.

    Denmark is not quite as peaceful as many people probably think. There are rarely casualties though.

  21. rt
    November 30, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    jesus, glad you’re ok, Holly. I’ll remember that note about carbonated beverages in case I ever run into a gasoline fire in a deli.

  22. November 30, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    WOW.. though I don’t live in NYC I visit a few times a year. An hour flight away and family makes it an easy trip for me. Though I know it is supposedly the big bad city I never feel that way about it. I am glad to hear that you made it out okay that could have been a very terrible incident.

    Yeah the first impulse is water when we see fire but depending on what is fueling the fire that can be the worst decision that you make.

  23. pooja
    November 30, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    dude holly, i cant believe you were firebombed. thank gawd for yr mad video game skills.

  24. November 30, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    but it didn’t seem to be a hate crime on the surface of it — just another crazy night in New York

    Whew . . . even though throwing the gasoline set a man on fire and might have killed dozens, I’m so relieved the crime (I mean rowdy incident) was not motivated by hate, or at least not hate of a particular group.

  25. William
    November 30, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    What crazy things happen in your neck of the woods?

    All last year I worked at an inner city high school in Chicago doing group and individual therapy. While I was there I saw umpteen fights, found out that the school had its own holding cells(?!), dealt with several armed clients/students, did trauma groups for a group of students that witnessed a nasty shooting, and learned more about gang politics than I ever thought possible.

    This year I’m doing testing, assessment, and therapy in an in-patient/nursing home setting for the chronically mentally ill. Many of the residents are fresh out of maximum security, locked ward, or forensic settings. The worst thing I’ve had to deal with so far is people missing appointments. *shrug*

  26. Marksman2000
    November 30, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    You are very lucky. If the perp would have known how to construct an authentic gasoline bomb, you’d be in a burn unit right now–or worse.

    You are very, very lucky.

  27. denelian
    November 30, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    this is what’s wrong with me… i am reading your story, the gascan flys in, and the first thing i think is “POUR PEPSI ON IT!”

    really really really glad you are ok. not to be cliche, how are your shoes? most shoes here in the US are made of plastic/rubber, and you mentioned they caught some flame. that could be bad for you.

  28. cubicalgirl
    November 30, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Wow! I’m glad you’re OK. As for the crazy things in my neck of the woods, I have a Neo-Nazi in my neighborhood. He (or his minions) have been plastering the any clear space he can find with stickers publicizing his website. I happened to see a story about him in the local paper becuase he’s a new breed of Neo-Nazi who isn’t afraid to show his face and spout his ridiculous hate in public. So I’ve spent the better part of 1 1/2 years scraping stickers off light poles and stop signs in my neighborhood. As someone in an interracial relationship you can imagine how excited I am to have this dumbass as a neighbor.

  29. mustelid
    November 30, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Holy shit! Glad you’re okay, Holly.

  30. November 30, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    The shenannigans sure seem to find you lately! Glad everyone was OK!

  31. dc_kid
    November 30, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Crazy. Last night my boyfriend was mugged at (what we presume was) gunpoint (he didn’t see it, just felt it) while I was on the phone with him. He was just two blocks from his house in DC. Terrifying!

  32. November 30, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    God damn, woman! Glad you’re okay!

  33. MissAnnaThema
    November 30, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    I’m so glad you’re okay! That sounds like it could have ended up really badly, so I’m glad nobody got hurt seriously.

    I was mugged a couple of months ago in broad daylight on a busy street, but I managed to fight the two guys off until an older man came around the corner and called the police and they ran off. I’ve also had firecrackers thrown at my car while I sat at a stoplight. It’s weird too, because I’ve lived here in Dallas all my life and nothing like this ever happened to me until the last couple of months.

    Like you said, just the luck of the city.

  34. Kristen from MA
    November 30, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Jeez! Glad you’re OK.

    My friend and I are going to NYC for the day tomorrow to see the Van Gogh exhibit at MOMA. I hope the trip is uneventful! :/

  35. Bitter Scribe
    November 30, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Yikes. Glad you didn’t get hurt.

    The craziest thing that ever happened near my house was at a youth football game. A couple of knuckleheads whose cousins or nephews or something were playing in the game recognized each other as being from rival gangs, pulled out guns and shot up the place. No one got hit but there were a lot of scared 12-year-old kids and their relatives.

  36. November 30, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    In my neck of the woods “crazy stuff” consists of the goddamned students who litter in/let their dogs poop in/park in my yard. It’s a lot of “Get offa my lawn!”

    No firebombs yet.

    So glad you weren’t hurt.

  37. November 30, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Oh Holly, I’m so glad you’re alright! That’s terrifying!

  38. December 1, 2008 at 7:15 am

    Good to hear you’re okay Holly! God that sounds awful and super scary. What’s funny is that many Americans and a lot of Brits will be scared of coming to Ireland, but believe me, stuff like that doesn’t happen here too often. Okay yes stabbings do happen. Uh and shootings. And people occasionally dying in police custody. Uh, why I was I comparing again?

  39. Erica
    December 1, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I’m getting you a bodyguard for your birthday.

  40. December 2, 2008 at 9:21 am

    “unlike last time similar stuff was going on (between two biker gangs).”

    Kristjan, you have a gift for understatement. I believe the “last time” you refer to has gone down in history as the Great Northern Biker War, and resulted in a ban, in several Scandinavian nations, against motorcycle clubs owning real estate (later overturned some places on constitutional grounds).

  41. Alexandra Lynch
    December 2, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Anderson tends mostly to the stupid drunk stuff. This week my husband gets to go to court because the neighbor across the street and a couple of other guys got into it and there was a lot of “Fuck you, asshole!” and the neighbor then proceeded to smash the guys’ windshield, scare people into thinking he had a weapon and therefore calling the cops, and then resisted arrest.

    My husband gets to testify that he was out on the porch having a cigarette when the guy was arrested and no, the arresting officer did not in fact use excessive force or beat the guy up, at least, not out at the scene. Part of the issue with the excessive force charge may be a racial one. From what Bear said when he came inside, the main problem the officers were having was just that the man was very baked and very drunk and pretty much falling down all over himself.

    Of course, you get that stuff anywhere.

  42. anon here
    December 2, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    This is super-depressing, but so technically is firebombing: I just heard a law enforcement officer scold a woman trying to leave an abusive boyfriend for living together out of wedlock.

    Yessir, that’s really the priority here. And if she’d married him first he definitely wouldn’t have tried to burn down the house!

  43. exholt
    December 3, 2008 at 3:27 pm


    Glad you made it out ok.

  44. Sara
    December 7, 2008 at 4:37 am

    It may be just me, but it seems crime (especially violent crime) around me has been on the rise in the last year or so. I live in a smallish college town in the Midwest, and for the first 3 years, it felt extremely safe. I live within walking distance of the “downtown”, which adjoins the large state university campus. Over a year ago, things started getting surreal. A group of high school boys invaded the home of a classmate, vandalizing her family’s home and sexually assaulting her in front of younger siblings. That was followed by the rape and murder of several front desk clerks at hotels, and the attempted kidnapping of one of my WGST teachers by a stranger in a parking lot. From there, we’ve had drive-bys in local neighborhoods, and most recently, several armed robberies on campus itself.
    While I know the town was never perfectly safe, the only crime I knew of before was (tragically underreported) date/party rape, petty theft, and a thriving pot market. It feels like the world is getting more violent, and places that were shielded from what I think of as more urban crime (violent crime against strangers) is coming out everywhere. Forgive me if my perceptions offend, because I know I’m seeing them through my own lens, but has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?

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