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To Live and Die in New York

August 24, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Five homicides per day is the norm in the Big Apple, but it doesn’t take a crack-crazed gunman to kill you here - death can be as close as the nearest street corner.

Ellen Sauer had just decided to take a nap Saturday evening when a steam pipe exploded beneath the street outside her Manhattan apartment building, killing her and two Consolidated Edison workers who had responded to what had been a routine call.

″By chance that woman had been in the front of her apartment,″ The New York Times editorialized Tuesday about Mrs. Sauer’s death. ″And it was chance that put those particular workmen at that particular site.″

Random death is a reality from Podunk to Peoria, but in New York City - where murders hit an all-time high last year, where the infrastructure is deteriorating, where high-rise construction can be fatal - the odds are a little higher.

In the past two months, numerous other New Yorkers found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time:

- An apparent leak of natural gas set off an explosion, burying Reginald Boynes beneath a ton of brick in his Washington Heights home on July 15.

- A stoop on a Lower East Side building collapsed, crushing a 10-year-old girl and her 11-year-old friend while they were playing a week earlier.

- A beer bottle thrown from a 15-story building struck a passing 4-year-old girl on the head on June 17. Sheena Fuller died five days later.

- A 500-pound concrete slab fell from the FDR Drive onto a car driven by Benjamin Bernstein, 49, who was going to pick up his wife in Manhattan on June 1. He was killed instantly. Investigators found 40 more flawed sections of the highway after his death.

It’s not limited to natives. In June 1988, a North Carolina man was killed when a ceiling at the Helmsley Windsor Hotel caved in while he was lying in bed. A summons was issued to owners Harry and Leona Helmsley.

To this, you can add the gunfire which has become one of the sounds of New York City. Last year, more than 1,800 people were killed.

According to a study by Lawrence W. Sherman, University of Maryland professor of criminology, the number of innocent bystanders gunned down in New York has increased each year since 1985 - when the number was four - to last year’s dozen.

″It is very frightening, and I don’t see any indication that it’s turning around,″ said Thomas Reppetto, head of the New York-based Citizens Crime Commission.

This year, it took just three days for a bystander to get killed - 14-year- old Jeffrey Vilain of Brooklyn was returning home from a prayer meeting when he was killed by a 9mm slug.

Last month, 17-year-old Sean Singh was enjoying a late-night snack at a Brooklyn fast-food restaurant when he was fatally shot in the chest by a gunman robbing a woman outside. For Singh’s family, it ended a dream which began eight years ago when they arrived here from Guyana.

″We wanted to give him a better life ... If we had stayed at home, even if we were eating rice and peas, it would still be peaceful,″ said his grandmother, Stella Singh. ″We would not have lost our child like this.″

Construction accidents also claim an unknown number of lives each year. Some - such as an aspiring actor killed in 1987 when a beam fell on him while he walked down a mid-Manhattan street - attract attention, while others pass unnoticed among the constant restructuring of the city skyline.

The most famous victim of a construction accident survived - Brigitte Gerney, whose legs were crushed by a 35-ton crane that tipped over on her while she walked past a mid-Manhattan construction site on May 30, 1985.

Her recovery, during which she received a call from President Reagan, gained front-page headlines. Mrs. Gerney, 53, received a $10 million settlement last year and has since shunned the spotlight she never sought.

″She’s relieved it’s over and wishes it never happened,″ her attorney, Robert Conanson, said after the July 1988 agreement. ″She wants to be a private, productive person.″

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