Strangers, friends lend helping hands



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Waiting to hear from friends

The explosion shook southside resident Leslie Whitton awake.

Her ears rung. The walls trembled. Her whole house shook.

Whitton stumbled out of bed wondering what had just happened after an explosion leveled homes in the neighboring Richmond Hill subdivision.

So did most of her neighbors. They wandered onto their lawns, some in robes and slippers, and saw the flames. Black, billowing smoke spread to the neighboring Whitaker Valley subdivision, Whitton said.

Flames raged for nearly an hour while neighbors watched on, she said.

“No one knew what happened, but everyone knew it was something pretty big,” she said.

Whitton was concerned because she had two family friends who lived near the explosion. She knew them both from Lifepoint Church, and had gone to concerts and other church events with them.

But Whitton didn’t have their phone numbers to check on them. She checked Facebook on her phone for any updates from fellow church members and walked over to Mary Bryan Elementary School, where residents were sent, to see if she would bump into them.

“I’m going to stay worried until I know what happened to them,” she said. “I just want to know that they’re safe.”

Helping children cope

Retired Perry Township school teacher Barbara “Ellen” Hamilton consoled her students after a tornado caused havoc and widespread destruction on the southside a decade ago.

She knew that after Saturday night’s explosion on the far southside, children would have the same fears, concerns and questions. She knew they would need someone to gently explain what happened, try to make sense of it or maybe just give them a hug.

Hamilton made her way to Mary Bryan Elementary School, where the teachers were supposed to meet Sunday afternoon to discuss how to handle the explosion when classes resumed today. She had taught Lori Ham, who now teaches at Mary Bryan Elementary, and wanted to help her in any way she could.

“As a teacher, you never really retire from helping students,” Hamilton said.

She said she would offer any help the school needed, including consoling students who might have lost their homes in the blast.

Aiding families in red zone

Two Southport Little League coaches headed over to Southport Presbyterian Church on  Sunday where The American Red Cross was gathering donations for victims of the massive explosion.

Little League board president Del Roehling and coach James Timm volunteered to help however they were needed. They were told to help drive supplies to displaced residents who were staying with family and friends in the area.

Victims left the far southside neighborhood without even putting on shoes after the explosion, and those who lived in the most damaged homes weren’t allowed back for safety reasons. They had nothing other than items donated from the church.

Roehling and Timm said they wanted to help because five families in the league were affected. Two of the board members lived in the red zone, where the most badly damaged homes will have to be torn down, Roehling said.

They weren’t hurt, but couldn’t go back home.

Timm said they hoped the best for everyone in the affected neighborhood.

“They can’t get back to their normal lives,” he said. “They can’t get to their items for work or their school clothes. They have these things but can’t access them. There’s the unknown of not getting access to their house. That’s the hardest part.”

Leaving everything behind

Greenwood business owner Lee Clark rushed into action after the far southside explosion displaced a relative.

His brother-in-law’s son-in-law had be evacuated after the blast in the Richmond Hill subdivision on the far southside. He and his family fled their home in their socks.

Clark picked them up at nearby Mary Bryan Elementary and took them to Walmart to buy new shoes, because they had to leave their old ones behind. Early Sunday afternoon, they were waiting for the chance to go back home to retrieve some possessions.

He said his family were most interested in retrieving family photos and portraits because they can’t be replaced with insurance money. He fears the home is lost because of structural damage.

“Most of those homes will have to be torn down, in my opinion,” he said. “They wouldn’t be safe to return to. With all the damage it did, it’s a blessing that more people weren’t killed or hurt.”

Firefighters race to scene

Two White River Township firefighters live in the neighborhood where the explosion happened, but they and their families were not injured, White River Township Fire Department Chief Jeremy Pell said.

White River was one of many area departments that sent fire and medical crews to the scene.

No single department can handle a catastrophic event like this, Pell said.

A total of about 60 to 70 firefighters were sent to the scene, Indianapolis Fire Department Deputy Chief of Operations Kenny Bacon said.

Donations stream in

Cases of bottled water piled up on the entrance outside Mary Bryan Elementary School on the far southside as donors streamed in Sunday morning.

Neighbors, children and families came carrying bottled water, food or plastic grocery bags stuffed with clothes, diapers and pet food.

Southside resident Kristen Hill came with her children and brought baby clothes they had grown out of.

Hill lives in Wanamaker, about eight miles away from the site of the explosion, but still felt it late Saturday. Her whole house shook and her dog got spooked. Hill said she was startled and confused.

“We could feel it,” she said. “The windows shook.”

Her mother owns a rental home in the Richmond Hill subdivision that was shook by the blast. They were still trying to find out what happened to the renters and the home early Sunday afternoon.

Hill said she didn’t know anyone who lived in the neighborhood, but wanted to do what she could to help. A friend suggested they donate baby clothes their kids had outgrown, so that’s what Hill did.

“Those people need help,” she said.

Still ways you can help

The Red Cross is now asking residents to help by donating on its website, redcross.org

As soon as relief organization heard about the explosion, officials started planning to open a shelter for residents who couldn’t go home.

They deployed an emergency response vehicle and a trailer, and prepared to give between 150 and 200 people a place to sleep at Mary Bryan Elementary School, Red Cross spokesman Brad Schleppi said.

But the residents, many of whom had grabbed their families and pets and left for the school after the explosion, already had places to stay with friends and families. What they needed were the items they hadn’t had time to grab — diapers, water, Gatorade and pet food.

The Red Cross was able to provide for those needs because of donations it began receiving almost immediately after the explosion.

At 1:30 a.m. Sunday, when the Red Cross was getting set up at Mary Bryan, residents from nearby neighborhoods started arriving with supplies including baby food, diapers and water. They had seen the news of the explosion and wanted to help, Schleppi said.

“People were not only generous, but they were very thoughtful in what they were donating to those folks to meet their needs,” Schleppi said.

About 200 people came through Mary Bryan on Sunday morning, taking whatever supplies they needed before leaving to stay with friends and family, Schleppi said.

Residents were allowed back into the neighborhood to see their homes and gather smaller items. Once the residents have a better idea of what they need, such as clothes and food, or if anyone eventually needs a place to stay, the Red Cross will find a way to provide for them, Schleppi said.

Victims who need help can call 684-1441.

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