A year after gas blast, she's still its prisoner


SHELLEY SARSFIELD'S orderly world turned to chaos at 1:18 p.m. on Jan. 19, 1995, when a natural gas explosion rocked her quiet Westminster neighborhood.

The blast, heard for miles, completely demolished houses, moved others off their foundations, started numerous fires and spread debris over a wide area.

Despite the extreme devastation, miraculously none of the residents in the neighborhood who were home or the workmen trying to deal with the gas leak was killed or seriously injured.

For Mrs. Sarsfield, a fortyish mother who has successfully raised six children -- three of hers and three of her husband's from a previous marriage -- the explosion has become an unmanageable fixation that preoccupies her days.

Even though she readily acknowledges that she should be thankful that her family survived the blast and her material losses have been replaced, her life has deteriorated into a joyless existence.

Mrs. Sarsfield also has nightmares, but they have nothing to do with the blast. She dreams about the disarray the explosion created in her carefully organized life. A self-described perfectionist, Mrs. Sarsfield hasn't felt comfortable since the blast. Although she and her husband have moved back into their house on Sunshine Way, which has been restored and carefully redecorated, she is unhappy. Even the creation of a huge walk-in closet to hold her large wardrobe and many shoes doesn't bring her any solace.

"I was a housewife. My house was my life," said Mrs. Sarsfield, who was wearing a smartly tailored pantsuit the day I spoke with her. "It was my security."

Now, the house has become a source of aggravation.

While the house has been rebuilt, it has developed problems it never had before. The roof leaks. Large amounts of water have flooded the lower level family room. Cracks have appeared in the walls.

Mrs. Sarsfield said she has devoted much of her time in the past few months trying to correct these problems, with little success.

"I feel like I have been fighting. I have been fighting so much that I am now fighting with my husband," she said. "In all the years we had five teen-age boys under our roof, we never fought. I am tired of being on the offensive. I want to stop fighting battles and return to the life I used to have."

She said the explosion has "stopped" her life. Fear of another explosion preoccupies her.

"When I am at home, there are parts of the house I can't sit in because I remember how they were damaged by the blast. When I leave, I worry about returning to the house and finding it leveled," she said.

Since the blast, Mrs. Sarsfield said the house has "taken on importance beyond what is rational."

In an effort to rid herself of these psychological demons, she has seen therapists and read a number of books on post-traumatic stress, with little effect.

She says her husband, Neil Sarsfield, the franchisee of Westminster's popular and successful Burger King fast food restaurant, has been very attentive to her needs. He went along with plans to upgrade the house and to replace her brand-new convertible that was damaged by the blast and could not be restored to her satisfaction.

Despite the expenditure of thousands of dollars in improvements, new landscaping and furniture, Mrs. Sarsfield can't seem to find the peace she craves. Instead of being a refuge where she could find comfort, her home has become a nagging reminder of things that, to her, seem wrong with her life.

Part of the problem, she believes, is that she has been able to deal with more daunting challenges in the past. Her youngest son was severely injured by an errant hockey puck at a Baltimore Skipjacks game. He recovered, as her husband did from a massive stroke.

"I think I have a sense of failure," she said. "I am a highly motivated person and have always been on top of things, but I can seem to get back on track."

Images of Oklahoma City

Mrs. Sarsfield knows that her situation could be worse. The film footage clips from the Oklahoma City bombing last spring sent her into a tailspin. The severe injuries and loss of life from that blast brought home the idea of how lucky she and her neighbors had been.

"We could all be dead. Or we could have lost limbs and eyes. It would have been horrible," she said.

Indeed, if last year's blast in Westminster had taken place a few hours later, children returning from school might have been killed or maimed. "Every family in the neighborhood could have lost a child, she said.

Mrs. Sarsfield's own daughter wanted to stay home from school that day, but Mrs. Sarsfield insisted she go to class. Her bedroom happened to be the most severely damaged in the house.

Escaping the tragedy doesn't offer her any consolation. Instead, it troubles her.

"I really feel cheated," she said. "We are good solid people and should have joy in life. Since the blast, we haven't."

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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