An attorney for Maria Hrynenko, the landlord who owned two of the three buildings on Second Avenue that were destroyed last week, blamed Con Edison for the explosion and fire that killed two people and injured dozens more. “I think Con Ed is remiss for not shutting all the gas off when they were there. Everything else is just total supposition and hearsay,” Thomas Curtis told Gothamist. He also dismissed the theory voiced by investigators that the gas service from her property at 119 Second Avenue may have been illegally tapped to feed the apartments at 121 Second Avenue. “Maria wouldn’t do anything illegal. She’s not savvy enough to do anything illegal.”

Yet Hrynenko's tenants say their landlord had a history of allowing unauthorized and potentially hazardous work in their building at 119 Second Avenue, which was destroyed by the blast and fire, along with the adjacent buildings at 121 and 123.

Residents in the front apartments on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors of 119 Second Avenue (also known as 45 East 7th Street) spent two years in court with Hrynenko after she allowed an illegal chimney for a “massive” kitchen exhaust system to be installed in the building’s air shaft that later resulted in their bedroom windows being sealed.

According to city records, the ductwork was installed in 2009 to vent the exhaust for a restaurant on the ground floor, which was initially called May Chan Ramen & Robatayaki and later renamed East Noodle & Izakaya. Business records list its principal owner as Hyeon Il Kim—who also owned the ill-fated Sushi Park restaurant next door at 121 Second Ave.

When the ramen restaurant opened, residents began filing complaints about the noise and odors emanating from the ductwork, which ran alongside their bedroom windows and then through a skylight onto the roof. “When they turned the vent on, it was like a jet taking off,” recalls Rob Schmidt, an IT manager who lived on the third floor of 119 Second Avenue. “Our whole apartment would vibrate.”

Beyond the noise, kitchen exhaust is potentially combustible, and must be sealed in a fireproof corridor.

City records show that in 2009 and 2010, Hrynenko was issued numerous violations for noise, work without a permit, and for having an “illegal exhaust vent” in the air shaft that did not “conform” with the plans submitted to the Department of Buildings.

After two stop work orders, in October 2010, the Manhattan Deputy Borough Commissioner of the DOB wrote a letter ordering Hrynenko to “immediately cease” using the venting system and to remove the ductwork.

Instead, the restaurant’s architect appealed, and the DOB ruled a few days later that the exhaust system could be made legal if they bricked up the air shaft windows and converted the bedrooms to storage rooms. (In New York City, bedrooms must have a window for “light and air” to meet code.)

“We said all along, if these rooms were to be used as bedrooms, there needed to be an air shaft, and if the shaft was going to be used for exhaust, it needed to be fireproof,” DOB spokesperson Alexander Schnell said.

With little warning, workers began sealing the air shaft in February 2011. “Her workers came and put cement board over our windows,” says Kim-Nora Moses, who is married to Schmidt and also lives on the third floor. When she and the other tenants on the 4th and 5th floors refused to allow workers into their apartments to finish sealing the windows from the inside, Hrynenko sued to evict them.

Thomas Curtis, Hryrenko's attorney, insisted the case was brought because the tenants had launched a rent strike over the sealing of their windows—a claim the tenants and their lawyer strongly deny.

The legal fight dragged on for two years until July 2013, when a Housing Court judge ruled that the window closures violated the city’s Multiple Dwelling Law and ordered Hrynenko to unseal the windows. Hryenko was also ordered to reimburse the tenants for nearly $50,000 in legal fees.

Curtis concedes installing the venting in the airshaft was a “collosal blunder,” and blames Kim’s architect for coming up with the idea. “The whole episode probably cost Maria over $400,000 when you add up the lost rents, repeated work on the shaft,” and legal fees, he said.

Although the venting was subsequently rerouted through the building’s old dumbwaiter system, the restaurant never resumed operation. A stop work order for the venting system on the roof—which was also flagged for violations—was in effect up until the March 26th gas explosion next door.

Curtis portrayed Hrynenko as a conscientious but naive owner, who trusted her architects and engineers to come up with good solutions: “She didn’t know any better.”

The restaurant's architect/engineer, Sokwon Im of Doric Consultants, is also listed as the engineer for recent renovations at 121 Second Avenue, which resulted in the need for new gas service there. Im did not respond to requests for comment.

Thomas said Hrynenko began managing the destroyed properties after her husband, the owner of the old Kiev restaurant on Second Avenue, passed away several years ago.

“I have letters from other tenants saying what a great landlord she is,” he said.

As for the causes of the conflagration next door, Curtis rejected the theory voiced by investigators and Con Ed that Hrynenko’s workers may have been siphoning gas from 119 Second Avenue to service the apartments above Sushi Park at 121 Second Avenue while they were waiting for a new, larger gas service to be approved.

“Why would Maria send in her only son in there to investigate if she did that? She was beside herself when she found out about the explosion. She thought he was dead."

Hrynenko's son, Michael, was injured in the explosion.

A spokesman for Con Ed told Gothamist that the main gas valve at 121 Second Avenue, the building where the explosion is believed to have originated, remained locked after two inspectors visited the property 30 minutes before the blast, and that the new service was never turned on.

The restaurant on the ground floor of 121, Sushi Park, continued to receive gas service from an older line, although at the time of the inspection on Thursday, the Con Ed employees did not detect an odor of rotten eggs, so there would have been no reason to disconnect that service. How the upper floors of 121 were receiving gas is still under investigation.

The bodies of Nicholas Figueroa, 23, who was on a date inside Sushi Park, and Moises Ismael Locón Yac, 27, a busboy at the restaurant, were found in the rubble on Sunday.

“Con Edison is working closely with law enforcement," the spokesman said. "We’re confident the investigation will reveal that the landlord’s deception went beyond asking the tenants to lie to Con Edison’s inspectors about the unauthorized use of gas."

Sarah Ferguson is a freelance reporter living in the East Village.