Southside blast comes alive in film

Two years after an explosion rocked the Richmond Hill neighborhood, the scars of the disaster remain raw.

Vacant lots are left where homes were too badly damaged to stand and had to be torn down. A chain-link fence surrounds the blackened foundation of the house where the blast originated.

For the people who lived through the explosion, the shock waves still reverberate.

That personal impact is the focus of three Whiteland Community High School students, who revisit the tragedy in a documentary film, “Remembering Richmond Hill.” Seniors Kendall Grenier and Lucy Smyth and junior Julianne Stanger talked to former residents, first responders and others impacted by the destruction.

They wanted to give a voice to the people who were in Richmond Hill the evening of the blast, follow the paths their lives have taken and examine the grieving process an entire community has gone through.

“We’re trying to show recovery, how individuals and families can recover,” Grenier said. “And we wanted a different perspective. The media is talking about all of the trials and that, we think more attention should be on the individual families — what they lost, their emotions and feelings, and what they feel now two years later.”

Though not intentional, “Remembering Richmond Hill” will be screened just as the explosion has re-entered the public discussion. Three suspects are preparing to face dozens of charges at trial, including murder. One suspect, Monserrate Shirley, agreed to a plea bargain in January in exchange for testifying against the remaining suspects.

The entire ordeal started in 2012, when a massive explosion on Indianapolis’ southside killed two people. Jennifer Longworth, a second-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary School in Greenwood, and her husband, Dion, lived next to the site of the blast.

The explosion damaged more than 80 homes and caused more than $4 million in damage.

“It’s a big deal in our community. Almost everyone knows somebody who has been affected by the explosion,” Grenier said.

That familiarity inspired the three filmmakers to revisit the disaster.

Stanger’s mother, Denise Stanger, knew many of the residents and their neighbors and helped connect the filmmakers with sources willing to talk about their experience. They arranged interviews with those closest to the disaster.

The centerpieces of the film are Abby and Chad Jackson. The couple and their four children lived three doors down from the site of the blast, which broke glass throughout their house, cracked drywall and lifted the entire structure off its foundation. They were forced to move to a new neighborhood.

“We were able to talk to them and to the kids, so we were able to get the perspective of the parents wanting to stay strong for the kids and then how the kids had to deal with it while at school,” Stanger said.

They also wanted to touch on those who were affected greatly by the blast, even though they lived nowhere near Richmond Hill. Stanger, Grenier and Smyth spoke with Southwest Elementary School Principal Beth Guilfoy to gauge the impact Longworth’s death had on the entire school.

Donna Jones, the head of the school’s parent-teacher organization, revealed how parents and children grieved together after the loss.

“We found it was very difficult to line up interviews with the people involved, but I think it was also very healing when we did,” Grenier said. “It can help the community in general to help heal when they look back at something that happened years ago.”

The students are entering their film in the annual Johnson County Film Festival, a showcase for the best documentaries created by area high school students. The project was difficult to arrange and produce. At times, it was hard to hear people talk about how the explosion jarred their lives.

But now that it’s done, the filmmakers said they feel that it was the ideal project to focus on.

“It was very ambitious but not impossible to do. That’s what you want to look for in a documentary,” Stanger said. “It’s interesting to people, but it’s not insane to get everything done.”

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.