Shattered neighborhood begins repairs, recovery

January 22, 1995|By Darren M. Allen and Anne Haddad | Darren M. Allen and Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Donna E. Boller and Bill Talbott contributed to this article.

The blast that ripped apart a vacant Westminster house last week has brought an entire neighborhood together.

After Thursday's natural gas explosion in the Autumn Ridge neighborhood in northern Westminster, residents began returning to their homes to pick up the pieces of their lives and begin again.

Helping them was an army of volunteers from around the city, county and state. American Red Cross workers supplied food, blankets and even stuffed animals to children. Local restaurants donated pizzas, burgers and doughnuts, and crisis counselors from the state and county comforted those devastated by a midafternoon blast that leveled one house, severely damaged 20 others and touched at least 46 more. State fire officials estimate damages at more than $1 million.

The blast occurred more than two hours after a cable television contractor ruptured an underground natural gas pipeline. The force from the explosion was felt nearly 10 miles away, but it was most rattling near what used to be 90 Sunshine Way.

"I always thought it would be neat to live through an earthquake. I've changed my mind," said Garden Court resident Judy Galczynski, surveying the smoking heap of the destroyed house from a hilltop behind her home Thursday afternoon.

Among the hardest hit emotionally were school children.

Jennifer Kazmaier, 14, a ninth-grader who lives across the street from the destroyed house, was shaken. "My house is gone," she said Thursday. "I can't go back to it -- ever."

This was the largest local disaster in Principal Donald Reck's memory. At Westminster East Middle School, about 40 students live in or near Autumn Ridge.

Some were out of school yesterday, he said, but others attended.

"One youngster seemed to be having a particularly difficult time," Mr. Reck said. "He was receiving assistance from the counselor and the [school nurse]."

Mr. Reck said decisions about sending students to school after a disaster depend on the situation.

"If there's something the child can be doing to assist in putting the house together, or is too upset to go to school," parents would be justified in not sending the child to school, he said. Otherwise, going to school can keep them occupied.

The Carroll County school system has a crisis-response team of teachers or counselors from each school building, plus pupil personnel staff and psychologists. After the explosion, they accompanied stranded children to the armory. Yesterday, they were in school in the mornings, in case students needed help.

Adults, many of whom were at home when 90 Sunshine Way exploded, also were coping with the disaster. But while county mental health counselors were available for them as well, many had to spend the weekend dealing with insurance adjusters, building contractors and safety inspectors.

Douglas C. Harris, an insurance investigator with the Maryland Insurance Administration, was in the neighborhood to handle any complaints homeowners might have of their insurance companies or building contractors.

"We're going to have a zero-tolerance for complaints," Mr. Harris said. "The companies need to put these people back to where they were. It's as simple as that."

State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele praised the many agencies for their "teamwork" in the disaster.

During a news conference Friday at the National Guard Armory on Hahn Road, Mr. Gabriele said the response from the community was "absolutely outstanding."

County building inspectors were helping owners of 20 houses deemed unsafe figure out how to repair the buildings. Four of those homes, were condemned and will have to be rebuilt.

Residents whose homes were damaged by the blast will be mailed coupons for one free admission to the county landfill, county officials said.

Power was restored to all but the most severely damaged homes by 10 a.m. Friday. By afternoon, an eerie calm had settled on the neighborhood. Postal workers were delivering mail and a Federal Express truck was dropping off a package.

But amid the quiet were construction workers piling debris into dump trucks and insurance adjusters hopping around the rubble, surveying the damage.

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