The victim, Gyles Lison, a pipe-fitter for a Hoboken plumbing contractor and a sheet metal distributor, died instantly from the blast, said Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio. Lison lived on Hackensack Plank Road.
DeFazio said that two tanks were found in the backseat of the Lison's car and could very well be the cause for the explosion. What ignited the explosion, either a match to light a cigarette or the car's ignition, could not be determined, he said - and perhaps may never be known.
"We're still trying to ascertain an actual cause of the ignition," DeFazio said. "We know that two tanks were found. They could have been acetylene or oxygen. That's still being investigated."
According to police reports, the first call came at 6:55 a.m., when neighbors called 911 to report the explosion.
"I came out into the street and wondered what was going on," said one nearby resident, who didn't want to give his name. "When you hear something so loud, immediately you think the worst. You think it was a bomb, that it could have been a terrorist attack or something. I didn't know. All I knew was I saw the flames and the black, bellowing smoke, and I knew something was seriously wrong."
According to Jeff Welz, Weehawken's director of public safety, two Weehawken police officers, August Same and Conrad Hablitz, were the first to arrive at the scene, just two minutes after the blast was reported.
"When they arrived, the car was fully involved in fire," Welz said. "The first two officers on the scene tried to pull him [Lison] out of the car, but they were beaten back by the intense flames. It was obvious right away that the man couldn't survive that fire."
The explosion caused serious damage to 80 Hackensack Plank Road, but because the structure was built 35 years ago with non-combustible concrete, the building never caught fire.
A man who lived in the building was injured in the blast, but was treated at Palisades Medical Center and released later Thursday afternoon.
North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue crews were quick to arrive on the scene and extinguished the fire in rapid fashion, before it could spread to adjacent cars or structures.
Not a domestic dispute
At first, a New Jersey State Police spokesman told wire services that the explosion was caused by a car bomb and that it might have been the result of a domestic dispute.
Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were called to the scene to oversee the investigation. Since the explosion resulted in a fatality, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office also sent investigators to the scene.
With the initial uncertainty as to what caused the explosion, the general vicinity was evacuated. Many of those local residents were relocated to the senior citizen complex at 525 Gregory Ave. until the area was declared safe once again.
"We took all precautions to preserve the safety of the neighborhood," Welz said. "Everyone knew right away that this was not a normal car fire and that it was some sort of explosion. What it appeared to be apparently led to all the speculation over the cause."
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, who resides just a block and a half away from the explosion site and whose home shook from the impact, stayed with the evacuated residents at the senior building until they were permitted to return to their homes at 2:20 p.m.
"When we heard it and felt it, everyone's thought went to one thing, a bomb," Turner said. "I mean, our whole house shook. You go outside and see the plumes of smoke right away. Windows were blown out all around. So I went to the scene and took one look at the car and it looked like a bomb hit it. Of course, there were concerns."
Added Turner, "The Housing Authority staff did everything they could to extent of the hospitality to the residents. It was extremely traumatic to them. This man was their neighbor and in some cases, a friend. When it was first believed to be a bomb, the residents were concerned and asked if their cars could be checked as well."
The ATF brought out bomb-sniffing dogs to canvas the area, as well as to see if they could locate any remnants of bomb-making materials near the explosion site.
"There is no evidence that this was a bomb," said Lt. Joseph Green, a spokesman for the ATF. "This has all the makings of a very tragic and unfortunate accident."
Once investigators determined that the explosion was not caused by a device, the residents were able to go back to their homes and the investigation was turned over by the federal agents to the Prosecutor's Office.
"We wanted to insure the residents that it was a rare occurrence, that it was a tragic accident," DeFazio said. "The consensus opinion, from the FBI, the ATF, our investigators and other law enforcement investigators that it was caused by the tanks in the back seat of the car. We will continue to try to ascertain an actual cause, but there was certainly no foul play."
The tanks in the car
DeFazio was livid that the initial reports went out on television, radio and news wire services that the explosion was definitely a car bomb and that it might have been the result of a domestic dispute. He said he spoke with State Police Director Col. Rick Fuentes later in the day about the released misinformation.
"It was troublesome to me," DeFazio said. "I have to be concerned when stories get out like that. Everyone has to be careful until the story is straight, because people should not be traumatized more than they already are."
Neighbors described Lison has a hard-working man, a dedicated worker who unfortunately took work home with him. He was a fun-loving and happy guy who was just beginning to make a decent living. Friends also said that Lison apparently quit smoking three weeks ago, so they were upset to hear that a cigarette might have caused the explosion from the leaky tanks in the back seat, but investigators did find evidence of smoking at the scene.
Another problem stemmed from why the tanks were in the back seat of the car and not secured safely in the trunk. According to an investigator, the tanks were apparently not capped properly, which could have caused a leak of the gases (either acetylene or oxygen) overnight.
Although saddened by the fatality, Weehawken officials were pleased with the response, the thorough work by investigators and then a restoration of order. After Hackensack Plank Road was closed for most of the morning, the debris from the explosion - some of which was found on Gregory Avenue a block away - was finally cleared away and traffic was allowed to return to the main thoroughfare by the afternoon rush hour.
"It was a tremendous response by all agencies," Welz said. "Thank God it was not what it first appeared to be. With all the speculation going on, it turned out to be a horrible accident and not a criminal incident."