Neighborhood bounces back from ’06 explosion

A second new home is being built on the block where the explosion occurred.



NEW CASTLE, Pa. — There are few signs left on Franklin Avenue to tell the tale of destruction that befell this city neighborhood one year ago this week.

Homes on the 800 block are neatly kept, and the only visible signs that something was amiss are the large tracts of empty land in the center of the block. That’s where a natural-gas explosion at 833 Franklin occurred just after noon one year ago Tuesday.

That home and eight others were destroyed by the explosion or later demolished because of irreparable damage.

Authorities contend that the natural-gas explosion was deliberately set by Patrick Henry, a man renting 833 Franklin for only a few months, in a failed suicide attempt. Henry, who faces more than 100 charges, is awaiting trial scheduled to start in January.

“A lot of us still have a hard time believing this happened,” said Jonalynn Duffee, who lives at 842 Franklin.

Duffee, who has lived on the street for eight years, was at work at a downtown restaurant when she got the call that a house had exploded in her neighborhood. Her husband, Sean, was home with their 7-year-old daughter, Skylar; Duffee’s 13-year-old sister; and the family dog, Bo.

“I really didn’t understand what had happened. Then I couldn’t get here because of the police and fire crews. Once I made it to the house, I wasn’t allowed in,” she said.

Duffee said she was shocked when she saw the destruction.

Fortunately, her family was not injured; neither were most of the neighbors who were home on that unseasonably warm day.

Henry and two friends who had come to check on his welfare, Jared and Sophie Baker, sustained the most serious injuries.

Henry spent several weeks in the hospital after the explosion and has been kept in Mercer County Jail on a parole detainer since his medical release.

Jared Baker, along with his wife, was outside the house when the explosion occurred, and he came out of the hospital after only a few days. But Sophie Baker suffered numerous burns and spent months in the hospital, followed by a stay in a nursing home.

Earlier this month, the couple thanked the public for their well wishes and financial support. The donation of nearly $100,000 paid for medical expenses not covered by insurance.

Sophie Baker was released from the nursing home in the spring and is back to work as a massage therapist and sales representative for a local company. She still has scars left from her injuries, but feels blessed to have recovered.

While the Bakers worked to regain their health, the neighborhood worked to come back from the devastating blast.

Duffee said her house sustained major damage with blown-in windows and doors, and damage to walls and her porch.

But she counts her family among the lucky: They were able to get back into their home after a week. It was livable, but it took about six months to get the doors, windows and other problems repaired, she said.

Others in the neighborhood weren’t so fortunate. Duffee said some neighbors didn’t return to their homes until this past August.

The neighborhood suffered $1.3 million in damage, according to Lawrence County Emergency Management officials.

About 92 people were affected, and of that number 46 families sought aid through Lawrence County Social Services, said Kathy Presnar, who administered the aid.

Presnar said by February, most of those affected had gone through the system and were just waiting to settle with their home owners insurance companies or repair companies to finish work.

Duffee, however, said the neighborhood felt empty.

“We were the only ones here in that first week,” she said.

Progress moved slowly, but Duffee said she was happy when Lawrence County Habitat for Humanity announced in the spring that it was building a home on one of the now vacant lots.

Terese McShea, Habitat spokeswoman, said before building the first home, Habitat held a community meeting to gauge how neighbors felt about the project — and they were pleasantly surprised.

“The neighbors expressed gratitude that we were building here,” McShea said.

The Habitat house went up on a lot next to the one where the explosion occurred. It was finished in October, built by volunteers from 12 Lawrence County churches in an Apostle’s Build.

McShea said the experience was so positive that when Habitat for Humanity was approached by a Portersville, Pa., company called Quality Aggregates that offered to pay for supplies and donate volunteer labor for another home, Habitat decided to build a second one on that same block.

Work started two weeks ago on the foundation for the two-story home to be built on the other side of 833 Franklin.

The new owner will be Ericka Corbin, a 33-year-old single mother with three children. She is going through the Habitat for Humanity program, which requires her to participate in the construction as well as take classes in budgeting and home ownership.

Corbin said home ownership was always a dream, but knowing her new home is helping to rebuild a neighborhood has made it extra special.

Now living in a rental home about five blocks away, Corbin felt the blast when it occurred one year ago.

“After seeing all those houses get knocked down and now seeing houses go up, I feel so blessed to be part of it,” she said.

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