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Homes flattened, windows blown out

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Daily Journal staff reports

A Greenwood teacher and her husband are believed to have been killed in their southside home Saturday night in an explosion that demolished a neighborhood and left residents wondering what caused the blast that could be felt miles away.

Jennifer Longworth, a second-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary School, and her husband John Dion are believed to be the two people killed when their home in Richmond Hill exploded. Police have not released the names of the victims, but the couple owned one of two homes on Fieldfare Way that exploded and have not been heard from.

Seven other people were injured and at least 80 homes were damaged. Two homes were demolished in the explosion, but the cause has not been determined.

Families started Sunday returning to the neighborhood that was partly leveled by the explosion, described as massive. Residents in the subdivision and neighboring communities describe feeling as though their homes were lifted and slammed back to earth. Garage doors, windows and doors were blown out, cars were buried under rubble and fires raged.

Residents returned slowly, with police or fire escorts, to the neighborhood to find streets clogged with police cars, windows broken out blocks away from the blast site, buckled garage doors and piles of charred rubble where neighbors had raised their kids. Loose bricks lay strewn in the street.

The residents were allowed to retrieve family photos, important financial papers and prized possessions. Those whose houses had little damage, such as a single window busted out by the shock wave or siding flying through the air, were allowed back home while several utility companies worked to restore service.

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The explosion occurred about 11 p.m. and decimated two homes and caused damage for a few blocks in all directions in the neighborhood of stately brick homes with two-car garages near Stop 11 Road and Sherman Drive on the far southside. The neighborhood is just north of Smock Golf Course on County Line Road in Greenwood.

Plywood boarded up shattered windows a block away from the blast site. Parts of gutters, throw pillows spilling out stuffing and other debris filled yards and streets.

Badly burned cars lay buried under roof shingles, charred wooden beams and other remnants of the garages that no longer stood. Houses looked like piles of burnt-up match sticks.

“There is a lot of destruction, especially at the site itself,” Indianapolis deputy fire chief Kenny Bacon said.

Bacon said it was the biggest explosion he’d ever seen.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Department of Transportation all are assisting in the investigation. Indianapolis code enforcement is inspecting the homes.

Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said investigators were looking at a range of possibilities, such as a gas leak, but hadn’t officially ruled anything out.

Citizens Energy has found no natural gas leaks so far, and no residents reported smelling gas for the two days before the explosion, spokesman Dan Considine said. Gas leaks normally smell like rotten eggs, but they occasionally happen without anyone noticing a smell, he said.

The utility is continuing a detailed investigation inside the homes that exploded to determine what happened, he said.

Riggs said the damage was devastating and widespread. Garage doors a block away crumpled, and second-floor windows shattered while first-floor ones did not.

“I’ve never seen an explosion like this,” he said.

The blast was so loud and could be felt from so far away that many off-duty police officers drove to the scene in shorts and tennis shoes, Riggs said. They didn’t know what to expect, just that people probably needed immediate help, he said.

Eighty homes suffered an estimated $3.6 million in damage. Five were leveled, or so badly damaged that what was left of them will have to be torn down, said Adam Collins, deputy director of code enforcement for the city of Indianapolis.

Code enforcement officials deemed that 26 other homes were unsafe and that those residents could not return home for the time being, Collins said. Some of those will have to demolished, while others would have to be shored or braced up before they could be declared structurally sound.

Displaced residents could have to work with their insurance companies, engineers and city officials for weeks before knowing if they can ever move back in, he said.

Indianapolis police and fire department officials said they weren’t ready to identify the two adults who had been killed or the seven people who had been injured. Bacon said four people rescued by firefighters were taken to area hospitals, and another three were driven to hospitals after they went to nearby Mary Bryan Elementary School.

Doctors and paramedics with the fire department checked out all 200 people who fled from the neighborhood to the elementary school, Bacon said.

“Everyone had medical care, but we transported seven,” he said. “I don’t know the exact injuries, but their injuries were enough that we had them transported to the hospital. I don’t know that any of them are critical.”

After residents were evacuated, city code enforcement officials looked at 126 properties in the neighborhood to see if they were safe or would have to be razed, Collins said. They found 80 that were affected, but 50 of those sustained minor damage.

In most cases, homes had broken glass, siding that came off or bent-up garage doors.

No one will be allowed to occupy 26 of the houses, Collins said.

“What that means is that some sort of demolition will have to take place, or some sort of shoring or bracing to make sure it’s safe for anyone to go back in,” Collins said. “We’re going to give as much time as we can for everybody to work together and get this taken care of, but there are some structures that will obviously need to come down right away.”

Residents with damaged homes should start working with their insurance companies as soon as possible, he said.

People can help displaced residents who lost everything they owned by donating clothes, food and other items, Riggs said. The Red Cross is recommending monetary donations be made on its website.

U.S. Rep. Andre Carson said the community has been rallying to help the victims, such as by donating bottled water and baby clothes. He said victims should know that they’re not alone.

“We had pastors and churches that were there to help,” he said. “This is what it means to put aside our differences and come together as a community.”

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