Man sets fire to Bar Rash in Brooklyn, NY

Claire Bendiner had just walked out of their Brooklyn bar on Sunday night when they suddenly heard frightening screams from employees inside the building. They turned around and saw the nightclub engulfed in flames.

“There was a second where I was totally in disbelief,” said Bendiner, who uses the pronouns them/them. “I was like, ‘Maybe that’s not what I actually see.’ ”

Bendiner, co-owner of the bar Rash, then takes action, call 911 and make sure the people who lived in the upstairs apartments evacuate the building. Firefighters arrived quickly and two of the three people inside were sent to hospital with cuts and burns, Bendiner said. One was released on Wednesday, they added.

Security camera footage released Wednesday by the New York Police Department shows a man wearing a backpack and hoodie smoking a cigarette inside the bar around 9.20pm as he threw a canister of gasoline down the ramp that walk down the dance floor. He then threw away what appeared to be his cigarette, leaned over and lit the puddle of flammable liquid on fire, as seen in the video.

Bendiner, 32, is unsure why Rash was targeted. The man – who police describe as 5ft 9in, 180lbs and between 20 and 30 years old – could have been a disgruntled customer or a “total lunatic”, Bendiner said. But they suspect Rash may have been chosen because it’s known as a space for the LGBTQ community.

“There’s a good chance it was because of that — it was a hate crime,” Bendiner said.

The investigation is ongoing and the NYPD did not say whether the case was being prosecuted as a hate crime. Police are offering a reward of up to $3,500 for information about the suspect.

Bendiner and their co-owner, Jake Sillen, opened Rash in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood in October. The nightclub often features DJs and attracts large crowds for dancing. But it was quiet inside the bar on Sunday night. At around 9:20 p.m., Bendiner joined a customer and a bartender smoking cigarettes outside. Inside were a second bartender, a DJ and a security guard.

Moments after Bendiner left the bar, the security guard, who was standing near a side door, noticed a man pouring liquid on the floor, Bendiner said. The guard asked him what he was doing, and the man replied that it was water and he was a cleaner.

Then he set the puddle on fire.

Bendiner saw the employees running out of the building. Both the DJ and the bartender had back and shoulder burns. The bartender, who was released from hospital on Wednesday, also ended up with a gash on her face, possibly from a fall as she tried to escape. The DJ is still in the hospital, according to Bendiner.

The man with the gas canister fled, police said.

Bendiner said they were still trying to figure out what happened that night and how they narrowly missed being caught in the flames. They also wonder if they could have stopped the man before he started the fire.

“But I have no real way of knowing,” Bendiner said.

If the man had come two hours later, when there would likely have been a large crowd on the dance floor, “it would have been a horrifying scene”, they said.

Bendiner and Sillen have been dealing with overwhelming anxiety and sadness since the incident. Sudden sounds startle Bendiner.

“I don’t want to fall asleep in case the whole place is about to go up in flames while I’m sleeping,” they said. “I feel like since he’s still there, it’s hard to feel safe in any space, really, until he’s off the street.”

The fire caused serious damage inside the nightclub. Bendiner said Rash will need a lot repairs.

“It’s devastating,” Bendiner said.

Bendiner and Sillen set up a GoFundMe campaign asking people to donate to support the restoration and to pay medical bills and other expenses for staff members who are now out of work. As of Friday morning, Rash had raised over $81,000.

“We have people helping us from all over the world – not just from Bushwick and New York, which is amazing to see,” Bendiner said.

About James K. Bonnette

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