Finding normal after the disaster
Richmond Hills family refuses to let blast drive them away
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 Hills 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 Hills. 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 Hills, 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 packing 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.”
Westfield family’s roots prove stronger than lightning
Warm brownies cooling on granite countertops in Robin Kelly’s kitchen send a deliciously decadent aroma wafting across the summer sun-filled room. For the Westfield Angie’s List member and her husband, Tom Barbera, baking, monitoring their two children’s homework, even folding laundry provides welcome, reassuring reminders that life eventually returns to normal after a disaster. Two summers ago, when a lightning strike to the chimney sparked a fire that destroyed their home and killed their 14-year-old pug, Belle, their family’s life plunged into turmoil. “If we had all been home, if it had been at night …,” Kelly says, her voice trailing off.
A bad thunderstorm struck their Centennial neighborhood home near 156th Street and Springmill Road on that June morning, Barbera says, while he and Kelly worked and their children attended summer programs. “Thankfully,” he says, “[the fire] produced a lot of smoke,” which billowed out from the garage and caught the eye of a watchful neighbor, who immediately called for help. Believed by Westfield Fire Marshal Garry Harling to be exacerbated by Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing or CSST, the flames blasted an approximately 8-foot wide hole in the floor of the main, great room area right off the front hallway. According to court documents filed in Hamilton County, investigators determined that the energy from the lightning strike surged through improperly grounded CSST in the family’s home, punctured a hole in the line, ignited the natural gas inside and caused the fire.
That lawsuit is one of several filed in Indiana and around the country against Omega Flex, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of the CSST tubing, says Anthony Morrone, the attorney representing USAA insurance. He filed the suit to seek repayment to USAA of the $430,000-plus claim that resulted from the Westfield fire. At press time, no trial date had been set. Timothy Scanlan, general counsel for Omega Flex, says CSST is a safe product when properly installed, but he declined to comment specifically on the pending litigation.
Once firefighters got the fire under control, Kelly says she and Barbera began retrieving irreplaceable items, such as a computer hard drive with about 22,000 photos, the children’s baby books, Kelly’s wedding dress and her great aunt’s china. “It was shocking, trying to assess, ‘what is the next step?’ ” Barbera says.
The other immediate concern, he says, involved trying to explain to their then 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter what happened. “We waited as long as we could before we picked them up,” he says. “We told them we had a fire and that Belle died. We didn’t let them see inside the house.” Kelly says the family stayed with her parents for a few days, and then rented a home in the same neighborhood in which they live, so much of the kids’ routine remained the same.
That’s a move lauded by therapists, including Janice Gabe, president and owner of highly rated New Perspectives of Indiana in Indianapolis. Gabe says helping children stay connected, such as returning to the same school or neighborhood, minimizes the likelihood of causing additional trauma. “Keeping them as intact as you can to the support system they had … That’s important,” she says.
Next came the decision to either rebuild their home or buy a new one. “I knew even from the second night that selling was not something we wanted to do,” Kelly says. Her husband agrees. “The neighbors were great,” he says. “We love this street, we love this neighborhood, we love the schools. We wanted to rebuild right here.”
Then the search for a builder began. “I was on Angie’s List within a week or so,” Kelly says, and settled on highly rated Fentress Builders, an Indianapolis-based contractor who specializes in complete disaster restoration. “One thing I liked about Fentress is that it was clear someone was reading the reviews,” she says, adding that the company responded to each one. The team’s “can-do” attitude, their history of successfully completing large projects — a non-negotiable item — and the glowing reputation of Fentress project manager Mike Strong sold the family on the company, she says. “He’s just down to earth. He tells you the truth, he doesn’t pull punches.”
Part of the rebuilding process includes deciding what to keep and what to pitch, but the ferocity of the fire made many of those decisions moot. Even things like a few afghans Barbera’s mother made couldn’t really be saved, so the family decided against wasting money on cleaning attempts.
The insurance company’s investigation into the fire’s cause delayed the tear down on the house by one month, Kelly says, and the family stayed in the rental home for a total of about nine months. The opportunity to rebuild meant Kelly and Barbera could reconsider what worked in their floor plan, make desired changes and work with Fentress to meet their family’s needs.
Though his company specializes in restoring clients’ disaster-stricken homes, Strong says it’s important to first empathize with their loss. “As soon as you walk in the door, you feel it,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Gosh, how do you make this better?’ You promise them their house will be better.” He says he totally gutted the interior of the house, replacing everything except the home’s exterior walls and roof.
Changes for better living included capturing more space for the kitchen/great room area, expanding the closets in the kids’ bedrooms, and creating what Strong calls Kelly’s “bowling alley” — a huge master closet created from unused space above the garage — which now provides more useful storage space in the home. “You have to listen to the client,” Strong says. “Both Robin and Tom had a good idea what they wanted. It was a lot of fun.” And rather than replacing the CSST-type of gas line in the home, Strong says Fentress installed black malleable iron gas pipe, the builder’s preferred line for functionality and safety.
For their part, Kelly and Barbera say they mourn the loss of their dog, but are glad no one else got hurt. “We’re thankful to God that we all survived,” Kelly says.
Tornado rips small community apart, then brings it together
Just a few feet from Charlotte Higdon’s rebuilt front porch, a breeze gently flutters three flags on tall, thin white poles, scuttling the air around the Henryville member’s home just enough to lift the freshly cut lumber smell and mix it with the loamy-soil scent of her family’s well-tended garden. The smells uniquely identify this small town, combining the comfortable and familiar with the inescapable changes that brought together forces for good.
More than a year after an EF-4 tornado ripped through the community, located 90 minutes south of Indianapolis, Higdon stands firm in her belief that the tornado represents a blessing in her life. “The whole town is better than it was before,” she says. “It was a terrible thing to happen, but so much good has come of it.”
Higdon’s 75-year-old husband J.T., who unexpectedly passed away in August, shared his wife’s belief. In a July interview with Angie’s List Magazine, J.T. offered praise for the friendships that resulted from the storm, saying it helped strengthen old ones and served as a catalyst to form new.
“There are people in this town I didn’t know. ” J.T. said, as he cheerfully showed off his monster garden, home to everything needed for fresh salsa, plus hundreds of other plants. “And it just wasn’t the town,” he continued. “We had people from 20 states come in to help.”
He considered one of those new friends to be Mike Strong, project manager for highly rated Fentress Builders in Indianapolis, the company the Higdons hired to rebuild. And for as much as the Higdons considered Strong to be like family during the eight months it took to rebuild their home, Strong reciprocated that admiration for the couple. “That family, I fell in love with them,” Strong says. “J.T. was such a good person, he was an amazing guy.”
The weaving of those lives from strangers to friends began on March 2, 2012, with a single question: “Are the doors to the church basement open?” That’s the query the Higdons’ son, Tom, a Clark County sheriff’s deputy, put to his father as the tornado zeroed in on the town of nearly 2,000. The door to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was open, his father replied, to prepare for a Lenten fish fry that night. Go there, the son told the father. “By the time I got up to the stoplight, it was just like you see on TV — the sight of this big tornado just coming at you,” J.T. remembered.
Taking refuge in the church saved the lives of many that day, the Higdons say. Stretching 49 miles and lasting 49 minutes, the tornado achieved wind speeds of up to 175 mph at times, ultimately killing 11 people, according to the official storm survey compiled by the National Weather Service. It caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages, the first billion-dollar weather disaster for 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Yet as quickly as the storm roared through Henryville, it was gone. Though the Higdons’ house sits just five minutes from the church, it took J.T. more than an hour to return home because of downed tree limbs and power lines. At first glance, he said, things appeared to be as the couple had left them. Then he looked up. The storm picked up the roof and sat it back down not quite close enough to where it belonged. Had the tornado lasted any longer, the couple hypothesized, the house would have been blown apart.
So despite things appearing normal, with pictures still hanging in neat lines on the walls, an insurance adjuster deemed the house unsafe, says Vicki Horine, the Higdons’ daughter. “It was OK compared to how bad some things were, but it wasn’t livable,” she says. The Higdons praised their insurance company, highly rated USAA, which services those with military ties. The couple says USAA immediately sprang into action, offering hotel accommodations for as long as needed, and connecting them to Fentress Builders.
Strong recalls the job as delicate, not only because of the nature of the disaster, but between the time the home was built roughly 100 years ago and when it had to come down, the Department of Natural Resources determined a portion of the land to be in a flood plain. What’s more, J.T.’s parents moved into the home in the 1950s and his father built additions to the house, making the demolition more emotional, since it was a reminder of his parents’ absence.
Clearing documents with DNR, then shoring up the land enough to meet state requirements for the build took approximately two months, Strong says. The actual construction of the 1,900-square-foot home took six months, with a total rebuild cost of $271,000.
Before clearing the site, in an attempt to ease the pain of the demolition, Horine says children and grandchildren alike took magic markers in hand, writing notes on the walls about special events that had occurred through the years inside the home. “Life happened in this house,” she says. “So we had one more family picnic. We had to do something to help deal with that day. It was so hard, so tough.”
Horine says that while she and the rest of the Higdon family — which includes four children, their spouses, and their children — shed some tears, they also see the good that came about because of the storm. “Friendship. Blessings,” she says. “People who lose the human side of anything have lost everything.
“We grew up knowing to serve. Our entire life, we were groomed to do for others,” she adds. “We learned that term, ‘pay it forward’ and we were used to coming together, working together. But we had no idea what working together meant.”