xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Columbia neighbors focus on recovery after townhouse fire

Aftermath of explosion caused by natural gas leak in Columbia in late September that left six townhomes uninhabitable and two injured.
Aftermath of explosion caused by natural gas leak in Columbia in late September that left six townhomes uninhabitable and two injured.

Junnette Nyawara still remembers every vivid detail of the night her house caught fire.

"You open the door and the heat of the fire is right there, right on your face, and you see the house start to disintegrate," she says, reliving the terror. "It's so real. It just paralyzes you, and nothing can ever prepare you for something like this."

Advertisement

Nyawara is one of the former residents of the 12000 block of Sleepy Horse Lane in Columbia's Clary's Chase neighborhood, where a natural gas explosion the evening of Sept. 24 triggered a three-alarm fire that rendered six houses uninhabitable and caused damage to many others. Two people were injured.

The fire department has ruled the cause of the explosion accidental, according to spokeswoman Jackie Kotei. The resulting fire caused $2 million in damages, she said.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Columbia neighbors focus on recovery after townhouse fire

A spokesman for BGE did not respond to requests for comment by Saturday.

In the month and a half since her life was upended by the disaster, Nyawara has begun to rebuild. But she and her family still wrestle with the memories.

For the first few weeks after the fire, Nyawara, her sister and her 14-year-old daughter, who all lived in the Clary's Chase townhouse together, felt a tinge of fear as nighttime fell. Nyawara's daughter suffered from frequent nightmares.

"All of us were so apprehensive, no one wanted to sleep," she said. While they were staying at her sister's place in Silver Spring, "my other sister and my daughter and I would all be sandwiched in one big, king-sized bed with the lights on. We were so jumpy."

Advertisement

The family has since relocated to the Metropolitan apartment complex in downtown Columbia, and the bad dreams are slowly starting to fade.

"We are just kind of recovering," Nyawara said. "We didn't realize what post trauma is, but it's real. We're just trying to stay busy, positive."

Back in Clary's Chase, recovery along the burnt-down block has been slow. Surrounded by a tall metal fence with a "No Trespassing" sign, the condemned townhouses look largely the same as the day after the fire, broken beams protruding from busted walls, debris dangling, piles of rubble strewn below. A scrap of roofing still hangs from a tree, its limbs now bare. On a recent evening, a black cat slinking under the fence was the only movement in a disaster scene otherwise frozen in time.

All of the displaced residents have found new housing, according to Joan Lancos, land use liaison for the Hickory Ridge Community Association. The owners of the six destroyed units recently met with Jim Greenfield, president of Columbia Builders, who showed them the original drawings for their homes, though he no longer builds townhouses himself.

Residents of the Clary's Forest community stood outside the wreckage Thursday morning in Columbia, gazing at the shattered remains of an explosion the night before that left six townhouses uninhabitable and an estimated $2 million in damage, according to Howard County fire officials.

Seth Bernstein, a part-time rabbi at Columbia's Bet Aviv synagogue whose congregation includes two of the block's homeowners, said a collection taken up for them had been distributed.

"I think things are moving in a positive direction," he said. "Both parties are making great strides."

"The residents are working together and separately to recover," Lancos wrote in an email, although "it will take a long time for rebuilding to actually occur." Insurance, design and permit issues are all on the horizon, promising a lengthy process. Though the units were connected, they are individually owned.

"The village will make every effort on our part to work with the community to handle covenant-related issues," Lancos wrote. Despite the covenant system that regulates Columbia's design, many of the residents whose homes were damaged but not destroyed have been able to make repairs without coming to the village for architectural approval, she added.

"It's a mess," neighbor Ladawn Fedd said of the blight that lingers on her block. "The holidays are coming up, and it's still devastating."

"We're wondering when improvements are going to be made," said Anthony Reed, who lives across the street. He said officials at a recent homeowners' association meeting told community members it would likely take six months to a year for construction to begin on the site. County staff also told neighbors about free counseling services and gave them a non-emergency number for police in case they notice any suspicious activity near the destroyed houses, according to Reed.

Nyawara and her family won't be moving back, even if the house they once rented is rebuilt.

"I've been there trying to kind of retrieve things, trying to talk to insurance people and all that, but [my daughter] and my sister, they don't even want to see it. They are so done," she said. "For me, while I'm driving there, as I get to the circle, my heart just starts pounding. It starts racing, it's so unsettling."

Junnette Nyawara in the lobby of her new apartment, the Metropolitan.
Junnette Nyawara in the lobby of her new apartment, the Metropolitan. (Staff photo by Amanda Yeager)

Nyawara said attending the recent homeowners' meeting, however, was a therapeutic experience. During the session, neighbors shared their challenges coping with the aftermath of the explosion and fire.

"It was good to know that we're all in the same shoes and we're going to go through this together," she said. "The whole thing has brought such sadness into the community."

But, she added, "at least we have a roof over our heads."

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement