BRONX, N.Y. (PIX11) –He was instrumental in turning the South Bronx from an urban wasteland into a community of homes, businesses and schools, but now Alfredo Thiebaud is dead at age 79, from a possible workplace accident that sparked an NYPD and federal investigation.
At 5:05 Friday morning, Samuel Rosas was walking by the loading exit of Thiebaud's flavored ice factory on St. Ann's Avenue, and saw the man known as the Bronx Ice King lying lifeless on the ground, with the electric roll down gate pressing down hard on Thiebaud's upper chest, just below his neck.
"I asked him if he needed help," Rosas told PIX11 News. "He didn't respond. He wasn't responsive. I just turned 44 in July, and he's been here since before I was born. He's just a fixture in this neighborhood."
The president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce reinforced that message. "For people that couldn't get jobs," said Lenny Caro, "He gave them that opportunity."
For blocks in every direction from Thiebaud's factory on St. Anne Avenue, it was a crime-ridden wasteland in the 1960's, 70's and 80's. One block away from Thiebaud's business, Delicioso Coco Helado, is the NYPD 42nd precinct, the setting for the 1970's(???) film, Fort Apache, The Bronx.
It's now surrounded by new apartment buildings, shops and an office tower, all built in the years after Thiebaud pioneered development of the neighborhood. He established the half-block factory / warehouse / office where his distinctive flavored ice dispensers on wheels are stocked and dispatched.
"When he moved into this building," said Caro, who is also a close friend of the Thiebaud Family, "most of these buildings were burned out. Nobody believed he could do it, but he did it."
Lucia Yvonne is one of the dozens of people who push Delicioso Coco Helado carts around the city, selling the flavored ices to hot, craving customers. She told PIX11 News that as soon as she found out about Thiebaud's death Friday morning, "I came over here. To pay my respects. I do icee everyday."
Dozens more South Bronx residents worked for Thiebaud, happily, they said, even though they were crying noticeably on Friday. All of Thiebaud's workers came out to mourn, and they joined hundreds of other residents who exponentially grew a makeshift memorial that had been set up at the electric roll down gate where the 79 year-old entrepreneur died.
Friday morning and afternoon, investigators from the NYPD and OSHA analyzed the gate to see if Thiebaud had been accidentally crushed to death by the gate, or if he died of other causes.
A surveillance camera that was trained on the gate captured Thiebaud's last minutes alive. A source close to the police investigation told PIX11 News that the video indicates that Thiebaud was sweeping at the gate, and then collapsed, and then the gate came down on him. Whether or not the gate caused his death is still under investigation.
This much is known: a Bronx legend is gone. This weekend, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will hold its convention in Salt Lake City, dedicated to the South Bronx businessman who originally hailed from Puerto Rico, and made an against-all-odds investment in his neighborhood that paid off.
"Myself, my brothers, my cousins, he gave people chances," said Julio Reynoso, 24, whom Thiebaud hired for a variety of odd jobs throughout Reynoso's teens, to ensure he and his friends stayed out of trouble.
Reynoso said this was a tragedy that nonetheless happened the way Alfredo Thiebaud would have preferred. "He told me that he wanted to pass away at his job," said Reynoso. "Where he works at."