Finding Normal After the Disaster: Richmond Hill Explosion
Richmond Hill family refuses to let blast drive them away
October 1, 2013 by Lisa Renze-Rhodes
Whirring, whining saws chew through fresh lumber as rapid-fire blasts from pneumatic nailers fill the air along Fieldfare Way on Indianapolis’ Southside. “It’s much happier to hear the sounds of nail guns than the sounds of backhoes doing demolition,” says Angie’s List member Nikki Cocherell, who with her husband, Brett, and their two boys returned home in August, almost a year after a man-made explosion nearly decimated their Richmond Hill neighborhood.
Though the construction brings welcome sights and sounds to the family, there’s something they long for even more. “Wiffle ball games and football games in the middle of the street,” Brett says. “For me, when the kids are back in the street, when I can fire up the grill on the back porch, that’s when I know it will be normal.”
It’s easy to understand why folks in the neighborhood seem eager to get back to the everyday, after the Nov. 10 blast claimed two lives, destroyed several homes and damaged dozens more beyond repair, taking families’ daily routines and turning them inside out.
The blast caused an estimated $5.75 million in property damage, including 29 homes that had to be torn down, according to official city records. Today, the neighborhood’s return to almost normal is evident with seven families, including the Cocherells, back in their homes and contractors continuing their work to rebuild seven others. The remaining lots stand empty and it’s unclear what the future holds for those spaces.
What’s especially tough, the Cocherells say, is learning the destruction appears to be deliberate, as alleged through an investigation by local police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. According to Marion County court records, prosecutors charged Mark Leonard, Monserrate Shirley and Bob Leonard Jr. with 52 felony counts each in the case, including two counts of murder for the deaths of John and Jennifer Longworth, asleep in their home on Fieldfare Way right next to the home that exploded. Prosecutors say the three devised the scheme in an attempt to retire debt, anticipating an insurance payout on the property Shirley owned in Richmond Hill. At press time, the trio’s trial was set for June 16. Mark Leonard faces two additional felony charges, including conspiracy to commit murder of a witness to the November events, police say.
On the night of the explosion, Nikki and son Colbi, 11, stayed home — three doors down from the Shirley property — while Brett and son Hunter, 13, traveled to an Evansville-area soccer tournament for the weekend. Following dinner with Nikki’s parents, the mother and son enjoyed a movie night before going to bed just before 10 p.m. They, plus the family’s two dogs, all settled in to the master bedroom for the night. “I had just gone to sleep,” Nikki says. “It was a little after 11 ... and all of a sudden the house just started shaking.”
The next few minutes remain a blur, Nikki says. Immediately, she ordered Colbi to stay put on the bed, while she investigated. “I was trying to get my bearings, I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she says. “I ran out the door and down the stairs to get a flashlight. The entire time I’m running down the stairs I’m going, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!’ The front door is busted open, all this air is rushing in, I’m still thinking this is an earthquake.”
With flashlight in hand, Nikki tore back up the stairs with deliberate instructions for Colbi to find heavier clothes, socks and shoes in his own room. Nikki tried to do the same, but the explosion brought part of a wall down in front of her closet, so the best she could muster was a pair of slippers. While Colbi dressed, Nikki called across town to her parents’ house. “Daddy?” she said when her father answered the phone. “I need help.”
As her parents raced to Richmond Hill, Nikki made her way outside, with Colbi and the dogs. “People are screaming at me, ‘There’s been an explosion!’” Nikki says. A firefighter friend suddenly appeared, she says, picking up Colbi and carrying him to the end of the driveway. After handing off the dogs to a neighbor, Nikki and Colbi began the process of picking their way to the front of the neighborhood. Her mother, Joann Edens, says those minutes that she and Nikki’s dad waited for their daughter and grandson seemed interminably long. “As we were getting closer, all we saw was a sea of red flashing lights,” Edens says. The next morning, after reuniting with Brett and Hunter, the family scanned the morning news shows, and learned more about the devastation that rocked their neighborhood. Even though their house survived the blast, the Indianapolis Department of Code Enforcement deemed it uninhabitable a few days later due to extensive structural damage, and ordered it torn down.
Still, Nikki says, none of that mattered when she thought about what might have been had the explosion happened on a typical Saturday night. Both boys would have been in the loft upstairs — an area that sustained considerable damage. And Nikki and Brett probably would have been relaxing on the couch where huge glass shards fell. “There was a reason it happened the way it did,” she says.
Brett also counts his blessings. “I try very hard, honestly, not to be mad,” he says. “It’s ignorance, and there’s obviously some evil in play. But my wife and my son got out safe, my pets got out safe. We can buy new things. The blessings are these people … our neighbors. It’s what’s made it easier to come back and try to rebuild.”
Not only did the neighbors stand together to provide moral support as each home was demolished, the Cocherells say, friends from their boys’ sports teams raised $1,000 during an annual pre-Thanksgiving feast to help defray costs for their temporary housing. The Cocherells say they worked to keep their family intact during the ordeal, which meant moving into an apartment for nine months and making sure the boys returned to school on the Monday immediately following the blast.
Next came the process of rebuilding and submitting an insurance claim for the 2,700-square-foot house valued at about $225,000. Nikki says their homeowners policy through highly rated Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance covered the total cost of temporary housing, as well as their entire rebuild. The family also found their builder, Mark Belcher, a Farm Bureau-preferred provider, through their agent, Kent Shaffer.
Belcher, owner of highly rated Indianapolis General Contractors, says he arrived the day after the explosion, because tasks such as boarding up blown-out windows and doors need to happen soon after a disaster to protect what’s left in the home from the elements.Inspecting the home and determining what items can be salvaged becomes more complicated when your neighborhood is a crime scene, and swarms of police officers, firefighters, forensics experts and ATF investigators spend weeks investigating, the Cocherells say. On the bright side, Belcher says: “There was no fear of looters.
”While contractors and insurance adjusters inspected their home, the family marked possessions they wanted to save, and created an inventory list of unsalvageable items for their insurance company. Everything in the home that can’t be cleaned, repaired and returned — be it a pair of socks or a grandfather clock — must be recorded, along with an estimate of value. When possible, homeowners must also provide receipts or credit card statements for the purchase of items. “You just can’t believe the amount of paperwork,” Nikki says.
Then debris removal and cleaning experts swing into action, doing what those in the industry call a “pack out.” Literally, says Derry Strong, of highly rated Moore Restoration based on South Shelby Street in Indianapolis, a team of trained movers sweeps a home, carefully pack Legos, dishware, quilts and more to bring back to the 55,000-square-foot facility where crews do the actual restoration work. Sometimes those goods include items like Nikki’s great-grandmother’s china hutch, which received significant damage. “But it was one of those things where I was like, ‘This is not trash. This is over 100 years old, this is a family heirloom … and they were like, ‘no, no, we’ll take care of it.”
Once the crews emptied their house, demolition got underway. Watching the house come down, the Cocherells say, put them one step closer to putting the incident behind them. “It’s awful and I would have rather our house not be demolished,” Brett says. “But in the end we’re going to come back home and things that we’ve said over three years, ‘Man, I wish we could do this, I wish we could do that …’ We now have the opportunity to do those things.”
Those improvements, Brett says, involved expanding the kitchen and great room area to more readily accommodate the family’s habit of hosting large gatherings for friends. Big changes on the home’s first floor also included adding a butler’s pantry, perfect for storing the many cases of water and Gatorade the active family needs, and a complete design change that moved the dining room from the front of the house closer to the kitchen.
Upstairs, Nikki says Belcher’s team incorporated loft space, previously used as a place for the boys to watch TV or play video games, into their bedrooms, with a Jack and Jill bathroom in between. The space redistribution, she says, better suits the needs of the soon-to-be high schoolers. The changes came about, the couple says, due to questions that Belcher asked before a single wall came down.
“When I walk through the door with them I ask, ‘Is the house usable?’ ” Belcher says, adding that it’s easy to make changes with a whole-house rebuild. “The walls all have to be built from the ground up anyway,” he says, so reconfiguring space is a simple way to make the best of a bad situation.
It’s an approach that Nikki believes will help with the healing. “We were hoping we could make some changes in here so it wasn’t the same house, wasn’t the same memory,” she says. “This is home. This is where we intend to stay.”
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