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Perryville survivors face task of starting over


Also, a photo caption in yesterday's editions misidentified the owners of furniture being carried to a truck from a damaged apartment in Perryville. The household items belong to George and Debbie Tucker.

The Sun regrets the errors.

PERRYVILLE -- Greg and Roxanne Peters picked up the pieces of their lives yesterday and packed them into the back of a yellow highway dump truck.

The Peterses' $330-a-month, two-bedroom apartment was declared unsafe after the Saturday morning propane gas explosion here that left one woman dead and caused an estimated $10 million damage.

Yesterday, the shock began to wear off for the Peterses and other Perryville families like them, many of whom were just barely getting by before the disaster struck. The reality of starting over has begun to set in.

"I think most guys here were unemployed, to be honest. Maybe two or three worked," said Mr. Peters, a 28-year-old father of three, standing by the yellow tape cordoning off the battered block of apartments where he lived.

Mr. Peters is out of work and no stranger to hard times. He had been a $6-an-hour cook at the Broad Street sub shop where the explosion occurred, but it closed six days before the blast. He said his family had lived in a homeless shelter between November and January, and he was afraid they might have to again.

Mr. Peters and his neighbors at the sagging Broad Street Apartments hauled out their belongings by the armful yesterday for storage at Red Cross expense. The household goods were hauled to Elkton in state highway trucks.

"It's devastating, totally devastating," said George Tucker, 37, a disabled construction worker and the Peterses' next-door neighbor. "I was holding things together pretty good for the family. It's like someone smacked you in the face."

Dozens of state, county and town officials, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, poured into Perryville yesterday and vowed to do everything they could to help families displaced by the explosion and fire.

Mr. Schaefer walked past piles of charred timbers and into buildings where walls were bowed by the blast. He ducked inside the entrance hall of Mr. Tucker's place, where the explosion blew out a window and shook down plaster.

"There's a cross above our home. Look straight up," Shirley Reynolds told the governor, pointing to a cross-shaped section of plaster lath poking out of the rubble of her apartment. "We were bruised in a few places, but thank God we're alive."

David McMillion, state director of emergency management, said that the area affected by the blast might be too small to qualify for federal disaster aid but that housing assistance was expected.

The Red Cross set up a makeshift disaster center in the town hall, where the organization fed lunch to homeless families and helped them fill out applications for aid. Food stamps and restaurant vouchers were dispensed on the spot.

Patrick Smythe, Red Cross volunteer chairman, said 34 families who needed shelter would be housed at Red Cross expense at a local hotel for at least this week while officials sought other housing for them. The blast displaced about 100 people in all, some of whom are staying with relatives.

"The challenge today is trying to establish long-term stability for families. They have suffered enough; we're not going to juggle them around," Mr. Smythe said.

John Koch, Cecil County social services director, said the "big problem is finding housing."

Three buildings were destroyed, three condemned, and a half-dozen declared unsafe. County officials feared that a severe storm with high winds could cause some to collapse.

Among those condemned were the Perryville Methodist Church and the 20-unit Perry Villa, a senior citizens housing complex three doors from the explosion site.

All but two of the center's residents have found temporary shelter with relatives, said Stephanie Garrity of the Cecil County Department of Aging. She said "prospects are very good" of locating affordable housing for them.

One resident, Frances LeMaire, a 58-year-old double amputee, has been "shaking like a leaf for two days," said her daughter, Lisa Hemrick, 38, of Rising Sun. "She thinks about her stuff and starts crying."

Mrs. Hemrick, after visiting her mother's water-damaged living quarters, was surprised that Mrs. LeMaire could have survived the 8:55 a.m. blast.

"If she was still in bed, she wouldn't be here now," the daughter said. "The plate glass window blew out, and it had daggered into the mattress."

Bob Thomas, deputy state fire marshal, said a propane leak into the basement of the sub shop from the back of the building caused the explosion, but "what we may never know was what was the ignition source."

Mr. Thomas said it was "far too early" to rule whether the blast was an accident or intentional.

He said at least one of three propane tanks behind the sub shop had been delivered and serviced the day before the explosion, and that residents smelled gas Friday night but didn't report it.

By midafternoon yesterday, Greg Peters had salvaged everything he could from his apartment. He rode a dump truck to Elkton to see it stored.

He was pleased not to have to spend half the night patrolling the back of his apartment block to prevent any burglars from taking what little he had. He was relieved to have a hotel room for the next five days.

"But after five days," he said, "it's back to Square One."

How to help

Any donations of funds for victims of the Perryville explosion and fire should be sent to Perryville Relief Fund, c/o Town Hall, Perryville, Md. 21903.

Donations of clothing and canned goods may be sent to th Cecil County HELP Center, Elkton, Md. 21921.

Those who want to volunteer time should contact the Ceci County Red Cross in Elkton at (301) 398-2470.

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