Year later, effects of explosion still felt Life has remained chaotic for some

January 21, 1996|By Jackie Powder and Anne Haddad | Jackie Powder and Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Amy L. Miller contributed to this article.

A year after a Westminster neighborhood was rocked by a natural gas explosion that leveled one home and damaged 60 others, many residents still are coping with the blast's financial and emotional aftershocks.

For families in the Autumn Ridge community whose homes were declared uninhabitable, the past year has been defined by hassles with insurance companies, months of temporary living arrangements and attempts to return to a normal life.

"Two days after the explosion, we were told [by a state insurance official] we would be put back the way we were," said Shelley Sarsfield, 45, who lives across the street from the house that blew up.

"There's nothing that money could do that would put us back to where we were a year ago," she said. "We are mad as hell."

The Jan. 19 explosion, which occurred hours after a subcontractor struck an underground gas pipe, caused more than $1 million in damage, spawned two lawsuits by insurance companies and led Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to evaluate its policies regarding ruptures of gas mains.

Autumn Ridge residents who were put out of their homes for months have felt the effects of the blast more acutely than anyone.

Mrs. Sarsfield and her husband spent $50,000 to repair the damage that was not covered by their insurance and on continuing problems they attribute to the contractor who rebuilt their five-bedroom house. The family has had to pay for counseling and medication that their health insurance doesn't cover.

Mrs. Sarsfield said she has been depressed and stricken with panic attacks when she goes out.

"The worst part of a trauma is coming back to the same place, and I have to come back and live in this house," she said.

No one was injured in the blast, which occurred at 1:18 p.m. on a Thursday, when many residents were at work or school. The subcontractor who ruptured the natural gas main had been digging a trench to lay a television cable for Prestige Cable Television of Maryland Inc.

Leaking gas made its way into a vacant house at 90 Sunshine Way, where it was ignited by a spark from a basement sump pump. The explosion destroyed the house, spreading debris as far as a mile away, and caused the evacuation of nearly 100 families.

All but one of the 20 families displaced by the blast have returned to their Autumn Ridge homes.

Linda and Ken Ireland and their two children moved to Finksburg last October after a $108,000 insurance settlement wasn't sufficient to cover the $161,000 in repairs needed for their home. The family sold the house on Snowfall Way to a contractor, who has nearly rebuilt it.

For 10 months, the Irelands lived a nomadic existence, first staying with Mrs. Ireland's mother, then renting a furnished apartment for six months in the Ridgeview Chase apartments in Westminster, where several other displaced families were staying.

'Kind of tough'

The Irelands moved to the Boston Inn in Westminster when their insurance company refused to continue paying their apartment rent, then returned to Mrs. Ireland's mother's home for two months.

"It was kind of tough, especially on my son, because he had to change schools," Mrs. Ireland said. "We're still unpacking boxes, and the kids are seeing all the things they had that were ruined. That's kind of upsetting."

Mrs. Ireland spends much of her time shopping for furniture and waiting for reimbursements from her insurance company.

"Buying a whole house of furniture sounds like it could be fun, but it's really not," Mrs. Ireland said. At her Autumn Ridge home, she said, "I took the time to pick my things room by room."

Two lawsuits on behalf of 17 insurance companies that paid out more than $1.4 million in claims to more than 40 Autumn Ridge homeowners have been filed in Carroll County Circuit Court.

The insurers allege that the explosion was caused by negligence on the part of Apollo Trenching Co., a Howard County business that was digging the trench.

In addition to Reid Oliver, owner of Apollo Trenching, and Prestige Cable, the suits name as a defendant Maryland Underground Inc., the contractor hired by Prestige to lay television cable.

One suit, filed by Allstate Insurance, also names BGE as a defendant. In each case, attorneys have requested jury trials. No court dates have been scheduled.

The Sun was unable to reach Reid Oliver or to determine whether he still is in business. His lawyer, Gary Schapiro of Baltimore, said Mr. Oliver's insurer had hired him. He declined to identify the insurer.

"It's beginning to go into litigation. I would assume a large number of insurance companies have paid money. The [homeowners'] insurance companies are now suing the various parties involved in the case," Mr. Schapiro said.

A report issued in February by the state Public Service Commission blamed Apollo Trenching for rupturing the gas line, but not for causing the explosion.

The commission found that Mr. Oliver failed to dig a test hole near the properly marked gas main and that his failure was the reason the trench-digging machine pierced the plastic pipe.

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