After an intentional explosion physically tore the Richmond Hill community apart, neighbors unite, looking toward recovery.
A single tear slides down Emily Koerner’s cheek as she stands on the pieces of broken glass, mounds of dirt and piles of hay that lay where her house used to stand. She breathes in the piercing winter air and thinks about the familiar smell of cake that used to linger in that exact same spot. But memories of the explosion, which killed John and Jennifer Longworth, injured 12 and caused roughly $4 million in residential damage, are all that come to mind. Emily has visited the lot six times since Nov. 10, 2012, the night that forever changed the Richmond Hill neighborhood landscape and the lives of the people who call it home. Months have gone by, but for Emily, even though she doesn’t like to think about it often, the images of what happened that night stay with her. “I’ve tried to keep my life as normal as possible since the explosion,” Emily says. “I don’t like to talk about it. You’re actually only the second person I’ve allowed to interview me.” At first glance, as we pull into the neighborhood on the south side of Indianapolis, the Richmond Hill community Emily grew up in looks like any other standard American community. Earlier that day at Starbucks, Emily reminisced about her childhood, laughing at how the neighborhood boys would chase her and her friends with squirt guns and water balloons around the houses that led to the community pool. The Koerner’s, who custom designed and built their home in Richmond Hill in 2000, were one of the first families to reside there. “Even at a young age, there was always this amazing community,” she said. Now looking down Fieldfare Way, the epicenter of the explosion, in the middle of the neighborhood, it’s hard for Emily to picture such a carefree time. Cinder blocks, pots and pans, children’s toys and random clothing items litter the cement foundations of the 30 homes that have already been demolished. Burned-out cars lie in shambles in a few spots, making the site seem ghost-like. “All I know is that the Lord protected us,” Emily says. “No, restoration won’t happen overnight, but we’ve experienced something no one else has, and that has united us.”
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Around 10 p.m. on the night of the explosion, Nov. 10, 2012, Emily pulled into 8332 Alcoa Drive and walked inside to find her mom, Vicky, getting ready for bed and her dad, John, sound asleep in the loft. After brushing her teeth, she sat on the downstairs couch to watch the final scenes of the movie, “The Last Song.” Fifteen minutes later, a deafening boom shredded through and violently shook the house. What she thought was thunder, Emily quickly realized was something else as she looked down to discover she was covered in glass. On the house’s main level, the TV had cracked; the glass table had shattered; drywall lined the floor from the house beam, which had shifted from the blast; kitchen cabinets and broken dishes laid strewn across the floor. “Every window in the house broke, except for the six I was sitting under, which also happened to be the closest to the explosion,” she recalls, shaking her head in disbelief. Now sobbing, Emily pulled the lime green blanket off her body and started to walk on the broken shards of debris that were scattered across the living room floor. From her backyard screen door, which had also blown in, she noticed a nearby house was leveled. The horror of that moment is still hard for her to describe: fire raging, sparks and debris flying, sirens blaring, people screaming and crying, the smell of smoke spreading thick in the air. As her mother remembers, “It was like a war zone.” During this chaos, Emily’s brother Michael, who was turning onto their street when the explosion happened, ran toward the explosion site where he heard screaming from the house next to ground zero. There he found a little girl — trapped by 3-4 feet of debris from a wall that had blown in — covered in blood. A million things ran through his mind as he tried to figure out what was happening. Were a series of bombs being set off? Was it a terrorist attack? Who else is injured? But he didn’t panic. With the help of another man, he rescued the girl before responders were even on the scene.
If there were heroes in this, the neighborhood [and] the neighbors were them in my opinion,” says Kevin Bacon, Deputy Chief of Emergency Operations for the Indianapolis Fire Department. “I don’t think we will ever know how many acts of heroism and kindness they did for each other.”
According to Bacon, despite the fact that no one knew for sure what was going on, the Richmond Hill community was not only cooperative, but also appreciative and helpful. “You realize this is the worst time of these folks’ lives,” he says. “They could have been a very hostile crowd, and they were not.” In the months since the explosion, which investigators say was orchestrated by Monserrate Shirley, Robert Leonard and Mark Leonard to collect about $300,000 in insurance money, the recovery process is still in its early stages. Some houses have yet to be demolished as families negotiate with insurance companies. Yet in this waiting process, the community remains optimistic, even creating a Richmond Hill Facebook support page, where residents can share information, start prayer chains, discussion boards, etc. “Good things came out of this, even though it’s been a really awful situation,” says Morgan McCllelan, whose family’s house was severely damaged. The McCllelan’s house did not have to be demolished, but they’ve felt the burden of that night in a much different way. According to McCllelan, her family felt guilty that they still had a home over the holidays. This helpless feeling, as she describes it, was experienced most on Christmas morning. Although they were able to open presents and keep family traditions alive, so many others in their community could not. The Koerner’s are just one of the many families who couldn’t spend the holidays in their home. On Dec. 4, 2012, Vicky and her son, Michael, watched a demolition team tear down their home. In 2000, it took about five months to build, but on that day it only took 50 minutes for them to level. “It was two-fold,” Vicky says. When you are seeing 11 years of your life being demolished in front of you, it’s very sad. But we’re thankful to be alive. The things we couldn’t replace we have, and that’s our kids.” Similarly, throughout this entire experience, Emily has not preoccupied herself with thoughts about the physical possessions they have lost. She says the only thing that mattered to her that night was that her family and neighbors were OK. Though the majority of the community has healed physically, it’s the emotional scars that have left a deeper impact. On Thanksgiving 2012, Emily drove to Kroger to buy the ingredients for the corn casserole and pumpkin pie she was in charge of making for the family dinner. She approached the checkout lane and handed the cashier her card, not thinking anything of the trip. But as she watched the canned corn, vanilla, cinnamon, herbs and other various spices ride down the conveyor belt, her eyes filled with tears, and she collapsed onto the floor. Nearly everything the cashier had scanned would have been in the pantry of her old house. It’s little details like these that remind Emily of home, causing her to grieve. Even the new residence her family leases is a daily reminder that things will never be the same. Rachelle Vaughn, Morgan McCllelan’s sister, doesn’t know if there will ever be a “normal” for the neighborhood again. Everywhere she looks is a reminder of what’s been lost. However, despite the many hardships they’ve faced, the McCllelans, Koerners, and the entire Richmond Hill community is slowly recovering, finding comfort in sharing one another’s sorrows. They recognize, even after this story has faded from the headlines, the recovery process will linger on.
“It’s not that I can’t find comfort in the new house, it’s just that when something is ripped away from you, it takes time to re-establish that comfort,” Emily says.
The Koerners are still negotiating with the insurance company, but they hope to rebuild in the exact same spot by March. According to Vicky, the family chose to stay because of their community, which has pulled together as a result of this disaster. On Dec. 22, 2012, two days after Shirley and the Leonard brothers were arrested, the Richmond Hill neighborhood organized a Luminary Walk, which they plan to do again on the one-year anniversary of the explosion. For many families, it was their first night in the neighborhood since the explosion. Though it was a solemn event, the walk was a symbolic way for them to come together, look at the damage and begin to find healing. Starting at the neighborhood park, Michael, Emily, Vicky and John Koerner, along with about 70 people grabbed a white sandwich bag to carry with them. Each bag, including those lining the walk’s path, held a little candle. Though the sun was fading fast, the parade of candles lit up the darkness that had started to swallow the neighborhood. As the walk ended back at the park where it began, neighbors joined hands around a heart of candles for a moment of silence. At the heart’s center were two special candles, in memory of the Longworths. After a minute, the crowd began to sing Silent Night. The lyrics “all is calm; all is bright” began to hum throughout the neighborhood, perfectly symbolizing the hope that flickered in the community that night. The explosion may have been filled with desperate screams and chaos, but for now, silence and peace had taken their place. For Emily, restoration and closure started to seem like more of a possibility. She glanced into the distance as they sang, seeing the sign that now hangs over the neighborhood’s swing set where she used to play. She read the words “United We Stand,” and felt comfort knowing that as Richmond Hill’s journey of healing continues, their lives will remain tethered in a way like never before.