Picking Up And Packing Up

January 26, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Howard Swift stands in what used to be his bedroom, staring at the hole in the ceiling where his attic -- and the boxes filled with his family's memories -- came crashing down during last week's natural gas explosion in Westminster.

"As my wife packs away everything, she looks at all that is broken and says, 'There go all the memories,' " Mr. Swift says.

As he talks, the tops of Mr. Swift's shoes are covered by an inch-high pile of insulation that, until 1:18 Thursday afternoon, was securely lodged in the walls and on the attic floor of his Autumn Ridge home.

"The memories are still there, you can't take those away. But a lot of what was up there came from my grandmother. We hadn't thought about it much for 15 years. But now it's all broken."

In the aftermath of an explosion in which no one was injured but more than 65 homes were damaged -- 20 of them severely enough that the families who lived there have to find somewhere else to live for the next six months or so -- people start to look at the little things that they have lost.

Little things like Gregory Swift's comic books. Or Brenda Salkin's dining room table. Or Linda Ireland's 30-year-old Santa Claus, which was split in half during its seconds-long journey from the attic to her daughter's bedroom.

"You can't replace something like that," Mrs. Ireland says.

For families such as the Irelands and the Swifts, last Thursday's explosion tore apart more than their homes. It took them from their jobs, from their schools, from their routines.

Now, a week later, a new routine has settled in. Negotiations have begun with contractors to repair -- and, in at least four cases, replace -- the damaged homes. Insurance adjusters have come and handed families checks so that they can find a place to live. And movers have arrived, ready to haul away what's left.

Mr. Swift, his wife and their four children spent the night of the explosion in their driveway, wanting to protect what was left of their house. All of the front windows had been blown out, walls had buckled, and the front door was off its hinges.

"We didn't want to just leave it here," Mr. Swift says. They are looking for a house to rent.

Contractors arrived the next day and boarded up windows, covered two-story holes and shored up the sagging house. Mr. Swift's insurance adjuster handed him a check, and told him and his family to get a room at the Day's Inn, about two miles away.

The two youngest children went to their grandparents' house; the other four family members have slept in the motel room ever since.

Mr. Swift has been back to his house every day since the explosion, mainly, he says, because he has the time. On Jan. 11, he was laid off as a salesman for the American Tobacco Co., a job he held for more than 15 years.

He's had the time to watch men with heavy-duty vacuums try to remove the blizzard of insulation, and to watch workers for Popowski Brothers Inc. begin the two-month task of repairing his home.

"We try to erase as much of the devastation as possible," said Bill Law, the senior estimator for the Towson-based construction firm.

His company, which was summoned by insurance agents to board up eight of the 20 condemned homes, is rebuilding at least four of them at a total cost of about $500,000.

Mrs. Ireland hasn't gotten that far. She and her husband -- whose home on Snowfall Way was blown partially off its foundations -- are still deciding which construction company they will hire.

Yesterday, movers began packing up everything, even some of the broken items.

"I don't know everything I've lost yet," Mrs. Ireland says. "I don't know if we'll ever know that."

Her 11-year-old son, Kevin, knows what the explosion took from him. Although he says he's "doing O.K.," his mother explains why the boy doesn't want to go back in the house.

His room was a shrine to Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., complete with a life-size poster of the baseball all-star.

"It was torn in half," Mrs. Ireland says. "All of his cards, all of his plaques, we don't know what shape they're in."

Like the Swifts and the Irelands, all of the families displaced by the explosion were covered by insurance, and none of them have gone without food, shelter or clothes.

And none have gone without a glimmer of optimism.

"This is a mess," Mr. Swift says. He begins to laugh.

"But when it's over, this will be the cleanest we've been able to get the house in 15 years."

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