|A gas explosion in Teaneck last week destroyed the home of Richard Hass and killed the 66-year-old man, who lived alone. PHOTO”ˆBY JERRY SZUBIN|
Clean-up efforts were under way on Teaneck’s Hastings Street earlier this week but the smells of burnt plastic, brick, and wood still wafted through the neighborhood.
A gas explosion last Thursday reduced Richard Hass’ home to rubble and killed the 66-year-old man, who lived alone. Neighbors recalled him as “a nice man” whose generosity was well known on Hastings Street.
“He used to bring everybody tomatoes and strawberries [from his garden],” Banji Ganchrow, Hass’ next-door neighbor, told The Jewish Standard Monday as she inspected the damage.
“This was his life right here,” she said, pointing to the burnt remains of Hass’ flowers and tomato plants. “This is where he always was.”
Ganchrow was one of 27 people at Hass’ funeral Monday morning. Although, according to his neighbors and friends, Hass was not an observant Jew, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck conducted the memorial service and funeral at Eden Memorial Chapel and Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus.
While Hass’ death was “a terrible, terrible tragedy,” Zierler told the Standard Tuesday, the way people came together to give him a proper funeral was “very moving.”
With a half-brother and a niece in California and no other family besides his ex-wife, Irene, a funeral had to be pulled together quickly and without much help in covering expenses.
“Everyone, from the funeral directors to the cemetery, just [made] it happen,” Zierler said. “There’s a lot of generosity there.”
Eventually, he said, an estate would likely be set up and funeral costs settled, but nobody counted on that while making the arrangements, he said. “At this point, everybody just waived whatever would need to be done so the funeral could happen.”
The rabbi met Hass several months ago while the man was playing basketball with members of the center. They began talking and Hass mentioned that he had his bar mitzvah at the Jewish Center, which piqued Zierler’s interest.
“He might have been one of the first bar mitzvahs [at the center] with Rabbi [Judah] Washer,” Zierler said.
Hass’ helpfulness impressed Zierler, who had once gone to his home to learn about day trading, one of Hass’ hobbies.
“He gave me a whole lesson,” the rabbi said. “It’s sad that he could do so much for other people but not for himself,” Zierler said, referring to what he called Hass’ “life of disappointment and loneliness.”
Hass was the owner of a painting business in Paterson. Born and raised in Teaneck, he moved back in the late 1990s to take care of his aging parents.
“He was very attached to his parents,” said Paul Hutt, a close friend. Hass’ parents died within the last five years and he remained in their home.
About a year ago, Hass rode his bicycle by Teaneck’s Whittier School where a group of adults was playing a pick-up game of basketball.
“Richard was wheeling his bicycle in the neighborhood and stopped to watch,” said Barbara Hutt. Her husband told Hass that instead of watching, he should join the game. “They became very good friends,” she said.
Although Hass lived alone, he had an unknown number of cats in and outside his home, which sometimes made neighbors uncomfortable. Those close to him, however, said that his caring for the cats revealed his personality.
“He rescued stray cats,” Barbara Hutt said. “He took care of the needy, that was his perspective.”
In addition to bringing his neighbors gifts from his garden, Hass would also trim hedges and do other chores, particularly for his elderly neighbors. While speaking to one neighbor recently, Barbara Hutt learned that Hass had been mowing the lawn one day when he just stopped and stared down.
“He saw a bunny and he took great joy at seeing this little bunny in the yard,” she said. “Nature spoke to him deeply.”
Food was another of Hass’ passions, said Paul Hutt.
“He was a cook, anything and everything that tickled his fancy,” he said. “He had a recipe for salmon and dill. He did chicken and peanuts. He would make wraps with either turkey and chicken or Swiss cheese and mozzarella.”
And although he would ride his bicycle 20 to 30 miles a day and was known to watch his weight, he loved ice cream.
“He would buy a gallon of ice cream and then scoop out the gallon into little 2-ounce cups,” Paul Hutt said. “That way he could control how much ice cream he would eat. We were going to start making ice cream because it got so expensive. We were going to buy an ice cream machine.”
The way Hass and Zierler randomly began talking one night was typical of Hass’ personality, Hutt said.
“He would talk to anybody, and there’s no such thing as a 30-second answer. It was a 30-minute answer,” he said. “He was born to be a teacher, he wanted you to get all the information he had about the subject in the first sitting.”
As the community mourns, it also wants answers. Houses surrounding the rubble of Hass’ home are boarded up, hiding shattered windows, blown-out doors, and battered garages. The neighbors want to know what caused the blast and why Public Service Electric and Gas had not acted sooner.
“We all smelled gas for weeks” before the explosion, said Ganchrow. Earlier that day, PSE&G “came and said everything was fine and it wasn’t fine.”
Ganchrow had been at the Teaneck Swim Club with her 7-year-old son, Matthew, when Hass’ home exploded. They heard the boom and, thinking it was thunder, wondered if they would have to get out of the pool. When they got home, they saw the devastation. Windows in their home had been blown out and Ganchrow pointed to a dent in her side door from where a doorknob had struck it as the house next door came apart.
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is leading the investigation into what caused the explosion. BPU spokeswoman Janeen Lawlor noted that Hass’ home showed an increased consumption of gas in the past few months. She added that investigators had discovered an inactive pipe just off of Hass’ property, which may have played a role. But, she stressed, the BPU is “still in investigatory mode and will be for the next few weeks.”
Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for PSE&G, told this paper Tuesday that the utilities company had checked the gas line outside and the line running to Hass’ home and found no signs of leaks. Corroborating Ganchrow’s account, Johnson said the company did have a technician in the neighborhood that day, but no leaks were detected from the main line to the house.
The explosion was likely the result of a leak within the home, which shifts the responsibility from the gas company to the homeowner, she maintained. Once the gas passes through the home’s meter, it and the appliances it feeds become the responsibility of the homeowner, she said. PSE&G is cooperating with the BPU investigation, she added.
“Everything we’ve seen points to gas coming into the house,” Johnson said. “We just don’t know.”