Family recovers slowly after loss of home in gas explosion

New home may be finished by summer

Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006

When Warren and Carolyn Ford’s District Heights home exploded last March, it took a toll far greater than money.

‘‘The only thing we had left was what we had on our backs when we left that morning,” said Warren Ford. ‘‘It’s changing our lives, really.”

The Ford’s home exploded after a natural gas leak. The impact was so strong it melted the siding off a house next door. The Ford’s house burned completely to the ground. They’d only lived in it for eight months.

Overnight, the family went from living in a four-bedroom home of their own, filled with new furniture and family mementos to a cramped Upper Marlboro apartment, temporarily furnished by their insurance company.

Their daughter Patrice, a 20-year-old college student, shares a bedroom with her 8-year-old sister Kayla, while Warren and Carolyn sleep in the den.

‘‘It’s just been miserable,” said Warren, 48, a highway supervisor for the county’s Department of Public Works.

The couple’s two-story brick colonial exploded late last March after they had repeatedly complained to Washington Gas about smelling gas.

‘‘The fire department’s theory is that it was an underground migration of natural gas that made its way into the home,” said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George’s County Fire⁄EMS Department. ‘‘It was physically impossible, based on the amount of damage to the home, to bring [the cause] to a conclusion.”

The family says its insurance company valued the house at $250,000.

The Fords have replaced their clothes, their favorite CDs and other personal items gradually over the past 11 months.

Construction of a new home on Wintergreen Avenue, where their old house stood, began last week, and they expect it to be ready by summer.

‘‘Then, I can click my heels together, like Dorothy on the Wizard of Oz,” Carolyn said.

Some things are gone forever.

There are the pictures from Warren and Carolyn’s wedding, sonograms from when Carolyn was pregnant with their daughters — and Kayla’s pet parakeet Lilly.

‘‘Those are the type of things we will never get back,” Carolyn Ford said.

Then there are the intangibles, like the sense of security that was lost.

Patrice transferred from University of Maryland Eastern Shore to Bowie State University. The family wanted her closer to them after the explosion.

Carolyn, 46, was hospitalized in October when a pre-existing medical condition was aggravated by stress and required surgery. And then, there’s the slight fear that it could happen again.

‘‘Every now and then, we’ll talk about it, just to keep our sanity,” Carolyn Ford said.

Warren Ford’s voice is heavy when he speaks of what the family lost.

Carolyn, by contrast, chooses to focus on what they were able to keep.

Had she come home early from her job as manager of the hair salon in the U.S. Capitol, as she’d planned that day, she would have been there when the explosion occurred at 3 p.m. March 28.

She was delayed when a customer came in as she was packing to go and asked her to cut his hair. Carolyn says she refused initially, but then assented.

‘‘For some reason, it took me so long to cut his hair,” she said.

Carolyn was driving home when her husband called and said the house she’d fallen in love with on sight had exploded.

‘‘I just thank God that nobody got hurt and we’re still here,” she said.

Buying the 1960’s era home was a dream for the family after 13 years of renting apartments. Carolyn knew it was the right house from the first time she walked in the door. They especially loved the spacious finished basement that later became a favorite gathering spot for relatives and friends.

The Fords submitted an offer for the house, but another buyer made a higher bid. They paid $205,000 for the home after the first buyer’s financing fell through.

Family members who came by kept saying they smelled gas.

A month before the explosion, Carolyn says the gas bill was $1,000. When she called to question its accuracy, a representative told her someone in the house must have been stealing gas. Carolyn told the woman she was wrong, and requested an inspection.

Washington Gas came out and dug a trench on the side of the house, but nothing changed. A few days later, the gas workers returned and dug a hole in front of the home, near the street.

Carolyn said she told the gas workers that the family was still smelling gas. ‘‘They told me the wind was blowing it” in our direction,” she said.

The house exploded a few days later.

The Fords said right after the explosion, a Washington Gas representative offered to put them up in a hotel for the night, but they have not heard from the company since. They are planning to file a lawsuit against the company, but declined to elaborate.

Washington Gas did not respond to a request for comment on the Ford’s plight.

The insurance money has bee used up on the cost of constructing a new home, $28,000 to haul away the charred remnants of the old one and the expense of the temporary apartment.

The Fords were forced to pay $5,500 for a new water main pipe and $5,000 for new house blueprints out of pocket as well. The Prince George’s County Council waived their $220 building permit fee.

The family takes road trips to the beach and amusement parks to keep from getting down.

Kayla has two new parakeets she’s named Willie and Crystal, and Carolyn, who is naturally warm and bubbly, fights to keep the family in good spirits.

‘‘I have to be strong for all of them,” she said. ‘‘I have my moments, but I don’t let nobody take my joy.”

E-mail Tiesha Higgins