Long wait to go home 3 Elkridge families forced from houses by methane gas levels

Structure 'is still not safe'

Builder, developer expect to learn source of substance today

September 30, 1998|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

Tonight, like every other night, the Bambarger children will say their prayers just before falling asleep. Included will be pleas for a sick house to get better.

In the cramped, three-bedroom apartment they occupy with their parents, Bill and Jeanette Bambarger, and the family's dog and cat, their life is about as normal as it could be after high levels of methane gas forced them out of their spacious Elkridge home a month ago.

Each day, their parents ready themselves for the inevitable question from one of their children.

"They just want to know when we can move back into our home," said Jeanette Bambarger, 34. "I just tell them that we don't know yet. Right now, our home is still not safe."

The builder, Ryan Homes, and the developer, John Liparini, president of Brantley Development Group, expect results today from tests to determine the source of the methane in three homes in the Calvert Ridge subdivision.

The waiting has been difficult to accept for the children, all of whom say they miss riding bikes and playing with neighborhood friends in their huge back yard.

For now, Matt, 9, Lauren, 7, and Kimberly, 3, will have to make do with the few toys and videotapes their parents were able to grab from their home before moving to their temporary residence in the Ashton Woods apartment complex in Ellicott City.

'Can't wait'

"I can't wait to get back home," said Matt, an energetic fourth-grader. "I'm used to going out and playing with my friends."

The Bambargers, and others in their neighborhood, suspect their house was built on a landfill that once contained decaying materials such as tree stumps and other refuse and then was covered by dirt and grass.

But Howard County officials and Ryan Homes say the property, never a landfill, was a gravel pit.

Neighbors who grew up in the area, however, say they witnessed dumping of World War II equipment and old cars at the site years before the property became a housing complex.

In nearby churches, Calvert Ridge residents have posted signs asking longtime neighbors to come forward and share information about the existence of a landfill.

"The most frustrating part is not knowing what's causing the gas," said Bill Bambarger, 34, a comptroller and business director for a Columbia-based technology company. "Right now, don't know anything more than we knew three weeks ago."

The nightmare began Sept. 2, when Bob Hartwick contacted authorities after detecting an odor of gas in his basement. Firefighters and investigators from the Maryland Department of the Environment responded and tested numerous homes before ordering the evacuation of the Bambargers, the Hartwicks and a third family.

Fire officials said a spark could have ignited the methane and caused devastating explosions. Two weeks ago, a fourth family voluntarily moved out for a few days but returned after officials determined the levels of methane gas in the house weren't dangerous.

"We've experienced every emotion you can imagine," said Jeanette Bambarger, sitting with her husband and children in the living room of their apartment. "Your home is an integral part of your life."

Before selling their Parkville residence and moving to Calvert Ridge four months ago, the Bambargers put a lot of planning and thought into relocating. But no amount of organization could prepare them for the upheaval they've experienced.

"We have a great deal of our personal savings put into that house. It was a big investment," said Jeanette Bambarger, a housewife who says she misses decorating their home and cooking in her "dream kitchen."

"I love to bake during this time of the year, and I can't do it because all of my baking utensils are over there," she said. Fire officials have warned the three families that their homes remain dangerous, and if they go inside, they do so at their own risk.

'Kids are really affected'

In the same Ellicott City apartment complex, Matt and Colleen Fox also have taken refuge with their three young children and dog. They were evacuated from Calvert Ridge after methane gas was detected in their basement near the sump pump.

Matt Fox, 32, a senior loan officer for a mortgage company, said the situation has been hardest on the children.

"The kids are really affected by the move," he said. "They were just getting used to the house and now this happens." When his wife, Colleen, 30, has made a trip back to their home in Calvert Ridge to pick up more clothing for the family, she always leaves the children in the van.

"I won't take them inside of that house," she said. "I'll have a list of things that I need to get, I'll run in and run back out, but you can hear the kids screaming in the van because they want to go back to their rooms."

It's the little things that become major worries for families forced out of their homes.

"What are we suppose to do about getting clothes for the kids now that it's getting colder?" she asked. "All of their clothes are stored away in the house somewhere."

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