About that Baka boom

At this point, I had no idea what was going on, but I could use my imagination.

THE QUIET of Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood was shattered on February 20 when an explosion from a suspected gas leak rocked a Dan Street building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE QUIET of Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood was shattered on February 20 when an explosion from a suspected gas leak rocked a Dan Street building
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I was in the shower when it happened: a boom louder and stronger than any I’ve heard since the suicide bomb at Café Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in 2003. I shut off the water immediately and got dressed as quickly as I could. I raced up to the terrace of our topfloor apartment and surveyed the drama unfolding below.
There was a full-size firetruck parked in front of our building in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. Next to it were several ambulances. Even more unnerving, there were men and women running down the main street pushing empty stretchers. Aid workers were speaking heatedly, loud enough to be heard from my observation perch four floors above.
At this point, I had no idea what was going on, but I could use my imagination. It had to be a bomb – but why would an attacker target my building in a quiet suburb at 1:15 in the afternoon when most people were at work?
Perhaps it was a knife attack – that had happened in Baka 28 years ago. Three people were killed by an assailant running wild through the neighborhood’s narrow streets.
I pulled out my phone and began searching for news. Eventually the story became clear. It turned out not to be terrorism at all but a gas explosion in one of the four other buildings of our apartment complex.
By now, the media had picked up the story. Journalists, video crews, neighbors and random rubberneckers were crowding around the hollowed-out shell of the units directly above the blast that had rippled through our shared underground parking lot.
Speculation ran wild, online and off. Search teams had been dispatched to rescue those “trapped under the rubble and to evacuate civilians,” Kol Ha’ir reported breathlessly. Some residents had been rushed to the emergency room. The entire structure might be in danger of imminent collapse.
Over the next days, the building was cordoned off by fences and police tape. Guards were stationed to prevent curious onlookers from getting too close and to keep looters away.
The police conducted their investigation and referred the case to the state prosecutor’s office, which is where it’s stayed, shrouded in mystery until today when, some four months later, none of the residents – not those directly affected nor their neighbors – knows the whole story, only that a worker involved in a renovation had used a blow torch to connect a gas line that was supposed to be turned off, but wasn’t. The worker died in the explosion.
When calamity strikes, an understandable response is: could that have happened to us? And if so, what do we need to do to be fully prepared?
One of the most talked-about conclusions has not been how to legislate better safety standards (that’s important, of course, but mostly out of the hands of us homeowners). Rather, it’s something far more prosaic.
Residents of the eight apartments that have been evacuated now need to rebuild – but how are they going to pay for that? Barring a judgment identifying a negligent party and, assuming said party has enough coverage for the estimated cost of NIS 12 million, it’s each homeowner’s structural insurance that will need to kick in.
It turns out that many of the residents don’t have anywhere near enough.
That’s because when you take out a mortgage in Israel, you’re not required to purchase a specific amount of structural insurance. So most people take the minimum. After all, you’ve just bought a new apartment – what could possibly happen?
We checked our policy and we were in the same boat: Our insurance was sufficient to fix significant damage – say if a major water pipe burst or a fire broke out – but if the entire apartment needed to be rebuilt, there’d be no way.
The simplest solution is to up your coverage before disaster hits. If you can afford it, though, there’s an even more intriguing option: “walk-away insurance.” That’s where, if rebuilding isn’t in the cards after a predetermined number of months, the insurance company will pay out the market value in cash and take ownership of your mangled apartment so you can buy a new place of similar size in a comparable location.
Insurance may not sound like a hot topic, but it’s far from irrelevant. Yes, gas explosions are relatively rare. There was a big one in Gilo in 2014 that killed three and injured 11, and another blast in Netanya in 2011 that left four dead and 90 wounded.
Rather, it’s a different type of disaster we need to be prepared for these days: the very real threat of war, with the increasingly imminent possibility that a missile from Syria, Lebanon, Iran or Gaza could hit our apartment.
My wife, Jody, and I pored over policies with our insurance agent. In the end, we expanded our structural insurance to cover every contingency – at least until the end of the year, at which time we’ll reevaluate.
Was it fear driving us? Sure – but that doesn’t make it illogical. We felt we were making a proactive choice given the neighborhood we live in (and by that I don’t just mean Baka).
The gas leak was a tragedy for the worker who died and an ongoing nightmare for the residents affected. The best response for the rest of us is to transform anxiety into a learning opportunity and to take practical action – even if (hopefully) all it does is enrich the insurance companies and we’ll never need to walk away.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com