Illinois Town Residents Seek Normalcy After Gas Blast

By LAUREN ROHR, Daily Herald | June 25, 2018

The fiery house explosion that rocked a quiet Marengo, Ill., neighborhood one year ago still haunts residents who live nearby.

Most damaged houses have been repaired or rebuilt. Many displaced residents have moved back in and carried on with whatever sense of normalcy they could muster.

But long after the last piece of debris was cleared away, Theresa Hetzel still jumps at every loud noise. She can still feel the force of the blast throwing her out of the shower as she was getting ready for work. She can still picture herself running outside and watching flames engulf her neighbor’s house on 7th Circle.

“It looked like a war zone — like what you’d see on TV. It didn’t feel real,” Hetzel said. “People are still having a hard time dealing with it.”

Nearly 20 houses were left uninhabitable and dozens more damaged by the natural gas explosion that startled the town awake June 11, 2017. Nobody was killed or seriously injured – a miracle by all accounts. But many residents were forced to live in hotels and rentals for months as they battled insurance companies and waited to receive word on when they could return.

For the Keefer family, the waiting game lasted until late March. Their next-door neighbors, whose house was the epicenter of the blast, still are unable to move back in.

Kim Keefer found herself driving down 7th Circle almost every day after the explosion that leveled her home of 22 years and destroyed her family’s belongings. She would say hello to her neighbors gathered outside and check on the progress of her house as it was being rebuilt.

“It was weird living somewhere else,” she said.

A rental just north of town became a temporary home for the Keefers, who spent months juggling mounds of paperwork and calls with agencies. So when they finally moved back to 7th Circle, Keefer said, she was relieved to be able to settle somewhere more permanent.

Despite the comfort of being back in town, Keefer and her family are still adjusting to their new normal. Their house, for example, was rebuilt as a ranch instead of a two-story. Their baby books and mementos are gone.

“You try to get used to everything being different,” Keefer said.’`I want to make sure all the kids are feeling at home, even though it’s a different home.”

Keefer said she’s also become more sensitive to the smell of natural gas or loud booms – things that remind her of the explosion.

Authorities know the blast was caused by gas, but have not been able to pin down an ignition point, Marengo Fire Chief Bob Bradbury said. Officials thoroughly investigated the scene, and evidence was sent to a lab for testing, he said, but results were inconclusive.

The uncertainty is nerve-wracking for Hetzel, who wants assurance that future problems have been alleviated. Though she and her husband were never displaced, Hetzel said her house on Foxglove Lane sustained nearly $40,000 in damage.

“It’s just frustrating not to know how it happened or if it’s something that could happen again,” she said.

It was six months before Ross Hadlock, his wife and their two daughters could move back into their house on 7th Circle, just a few properties away from the explosion. They lived in hotels for the first five weeks and eventually moved into temporary housing closer to home.

With a wall knocked almost entirely off its foundation, Hadlock said he had to hire a project adjuster to assess the damage and line up contractors. Despite the inconvenience, he has chosen to take a positive outlook: His family was safe, his house was upgraded during repairs and his town is recovering.

“For us, it’s a slightly better normal,” Hadlock said. “The whole neighborhood is a brand new neighborhood.”

It’s also a closer-knit neighborhood than ever before, said Hetzel, who didn’t know many of her neighbors a year ago.

Immediately after the explosion, community members organized fundraisers, meals and donations for those affected. But even after the relief efforts died down, Hetzel said, neighbors were cleaning up each other’s yards, helping one another with insurance problems and gathering belongings for those whose houses were destroyed.

“You don’t realize in these small towns when something tragic happens how everyone comes together,” she said. “Everyone was looking out for everyone’s best interest.”

The support has meant the world to Keefer, who said her neighbors rolled out the welcome mat when her family returned home.

“It’s humbling, but it just makes you understand why you live in a smaller town,” she said. “I think everybody’s glad to see life back in the neighborhood again.”

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