By Vic Ryckaert, Ryan Sabalow, and Tony Cook -- Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- With no idea when they can return home after a massive explosion crippled their neighborhood, many Richmond Hill, Ind., families waited for answers and counted their blessings Monday.
"We're homeless, basically," said Mavles Baier. "What I can say is I'm glad that my daughter, my son-in-law and grandkids are safe. She got out OK, and her kids got out OK. That's all that really matters."
Baier lives down the street from the Fieldfare Way home believed to be the source of an explosion that killed two people and destroyed or nearly destroyed five homes and damaged dozens of others in the Southeastside Indianapolis neighborhood late Saturday.
The bodies of John "Dion" Longworth, 34, and his wife, Jennifer, 36, were pulled from the wreckage of their home. Jennifer was a teacher at Southwest Elementary School in Greenwood, Ind. The coroner has yet to officially identify the bodies, but a police report confirmed the names Monday.
What caused the blast remained an unanswered question, but mounting evidence points to some kind of natural gas explosion.
Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs offered the first candid answers since the blast took place at about 11 p.m. Saturday. Investigators suspect natural gas played some role, Riggs said, but he added that it's going to be quite some time before they release an official cause.
The ex-husband of Monserrate Shirley, the woman who lives at the source of the explosion, said a text message from his daughter told him the heat went out about a week and a half ago. He believes a faulty furnace may have caused the blast.
"I bet you anything that's why it happened," said John Shirley. Monserrate Shirley has declined multiple interview requests.
The dearth of solid information from official police and fire department sources spurred speculation among neighbors and on the Internet. Rumors, some pretty far-fetched, have run the gamut from meth labs to bombs.
A meth lab has been officially ruled out, Indianapolis Department of Homeland Security Director Gary Coons said.
No red flags
Four experts said the damage was consistent with a natural gas explosion.
Citizens Energy offered no solid answers Monday. While crews inspected main gas lines Sunday and cleared them, spokeswoman Sarah Holsapple said they began testing service lines that run into the home where the blast occurred.
Holsapple also said a meter reader had been to the house Oct. 26 to test energy consumption levels and found nothing out of the ordinary.
Dan Considine, another Citizens spokesman, said no one reported gas or furnace problems at Monserrate Shirley's home. But, he explained, the utility does not repair furnaces and would have no reason to know about such a problem.
Nobody was home at Monserrate Shirley's house when it blew up, taking with it the homes on either side.
John Shirley, 50, who has been divorced from Monserrate Shirley since this summer, said she and her boyfriend were at a casino the night of the explosion. His daughter was at a friend's house and the family's cat was being boarded, he said.
"I hope that she's OK," he said of his daughter. "I can tell they are both very much in shock."
John Shirley said his access to them is limited because his ex-wife has a protective order against him and has full custody of his daughter.
Prior to the divorce, the Shirley family faced financial stress. In 2007, the Shirleys filed jointly for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Court records show they had liabilities of nearly $410,000 and assets of about $316,000.
The bankruptcy case was dismissed in June.
The house was listed for sale in late 2011 as a possible short sale, but it was pulled off the market in March at the request of the owner, according to real estate listings. The house had a gas furnace and a wood burning fireplace with gas starter, according to descriptions.
'Stressful and hectic'
Residents, who have been eager to return to their homes, gathered for two meetings Monday where the city's code enforcement staff talked to each resident, particularly to those whose houses were significantly damaged.
About 80 houses were damaged in the blast. Many can be repaired, but some must be torn down.
Shelby Karnes, who lives with her family five houses from the site of the explosion, has busted windows, cracked walls and ceilings.
"It's been stressful and hectic, almost dreamlike," Karnes said. "All of us are still in shock. We're grateful that all of us are still here. We know the damage can be repaired, but we just don't know how long it's going to take."
Contributing: Kristine Guerra and Jill Disis, The Indianapolis Star