December 18, 2014

Elyria
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Neighborhood surveys damage after house explosion

Chelsea Miller, Anna Merriman and Lisa Roberson

An aerial photo showing the destruction on Columbia Avenue in Elyria

An aerial photo showing the destruction on Columbia Avenue in Elyria

ELYRIA – Columbia Avenue residents spent much of Saturday morning cleaning up debris and assessing peripheral damage after a home at 116 Columbia Ave. was destroyed by a massive explosion late Friday night, the cause of which is still under investigation.

The only evidence of the home, as well as a house next door at 118 Columbia Ave. that was so severely damaged by the blast it had to be razed that morning, were piles of bricks and rubble.

The house at 116 Columbia Ave., owned by Christopher and Jenny Willard of Grafton, was vacant and listed on a real estate website for sale at $110,000.

At the site Friday night, they declined to comment.

A friend of the family of Chris Mickolick, who owned the house at 118 Columbia that had to be razed, was at the site helping out Saturday. “We’re just trying to find some stuff to salvage,” the friend said.

Chris and her son, Matt, were in the house when the explosion happened.

The massive boom was heard at the Elyria Fire Station on Cedar Street at 9:45 p.m. on Friday. Within seconds, calls began flooding Lorain County 911 dispatchers, Elyria fire Capt. Joe Pronesti said.

More than two dozen calls came in rapid succession from neighbors who witnessed a fireball erupting from the property.

No one was injured in the explosion or fire, said firefighters, who are investigating the cause of the explosion,

Friends, family and neighbors of the Mickolick family help go through what is left of their Columbia Avenue home Saturday. KRISTIN BAUER | CHRONICLE

Friends, family and neighbors of the Mickolick family help go through what is left of their Columbia Avenue home Saturday. KRISTIN BAUER | CHRONICLE

“We did not have to rescue anyone,” Pronesti said. “We didn’t know that, so our guys had to search the houses that were still standing.”

Michael Page, who lives at 112 Columbia Ave., said he was watching television when the force of the explosion threw him across the room. Page said he was relieved that his wife, Diane, and son Andrew, 20, were unscathed, but his second thoughts immediately went to his two cats, who were missing.

“We thought they were dead,” Page said. “They were upstairs hiding in the back room.”

The Page home was still standing, but there was damage to the foundation, blown-out windows and cracked siding. Page said most of the family’s possessions inside were destroyed.

On Saturday, the doors to Page’s home were padlocked, although the family had been given a chance to gather some of their possessions overnight. The family is staying at a local hotel while they wait for an insurance assessment of the damages.

Phyllis Burke, who lives at 122 Columbia Ave., next to one of the demolished houses, said the force of the explosion broke 14 windows and cracked multiple walls in her house.

“We thought our house blew up,” she said.

Burke was standing in her bedroom at the time of the explosion and remembers hearing a loud sound, seeing flames outside and thinking her house was going to collapse on top of her. In the aftermath of the explosion, Burke said all she can do is wait to see how much the damage will cost.

Phyllis Burke stands in the doorway of her Columbia Avenue home hours after their home received extensive damage from an explosion nearby. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Phyllis Burke stands in the doorway of her Columbia Avenue home hours after their home received extensive damage from an explosion nearby. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Lucy Tolley, who lives across the street, said she also is waiting for her insurance company to assess the damages to her home. Tolley said the force of the explosion broke a window and a door panel, but Tolley and her husband, Jimmy, had not yet had a chance to survey the rest of the damages.

The Tolleys, like many of their neighbors, spent the morning picking up broken glass that littered their driveway and yard.

Although Lucy Tolley said gas company workers were at the vacant house earlier and neighbors reported seeing a Columbia Gas truck on the street, Columbia Gas spokesman Ray Frank said there had not been any Columbia Gas employees at the home that day.

“Someone might have seen one of our vehicles driving through the area,” he said. “The closest we were was a block away.”

Frank said Columbia Gas was called to a home a block away from the explosion site where a resident reported smelling gas. Frank added that gas service to the 116 Columbia Ave. home was established on Dec. 2.

He said he was not aware of any other reports called in to Columbia Gas from other residents about the smell of gas in the area.

He said the investigation into the cause of the explosion is still ongoing.

While neighbors speculate the explosion was due to a natural gas leak — several report having smelled gas in the area earlier in the day Friday — Pronesti said Columbia Gas will have investigators working to find a cause.

He said the fire department did not receive any reports of a natural gas odor on Friday.

While the explosion was limited to 116 Columbia Ave., Chris Mickolick’s house at 118 Columbia Ave. was so structurally unsound that it was razed early Saturday morning, according to Pronesti.

“The concussion of the explosion and debris hitting the home just damaged the structure beyond repair,” he said.

A friend of the Mickolick family said he and family members had been at the ruins of the house all day on Saturday, searching for belongings that they weren’t able to save before the house was demolished.

“Mostly personal possessions,” he said of what they were able to pull from the rubble, which included a coffee mug and a burned photo album.

Insulation, wood and siding hang in trees after a house exploded on Columbia Avenue. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Insulation, wood and siding hang in trees after a house exploded on Columbia Avenue. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Building Department official Kevin Brubaker said the exterior of the home at 118 Columbia Ave. may have looked like it sustained moderate damage, but the inside painted a different picture. The living room basically collapsed into the basement, which was flooded due to broken water pipes.

Brubaker arrived at the Columbia Avenue neighborhood late Friday night and stayed until shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday. With building material — 2 by 4 and 2 by 6 wooden beams — hanging precariously from several nearby trees, the street was barricaded until a tree-trimming company could clear some of the debris. Insulation remained stuck in surrounding trees on Saturday afternoon.

Brubaker said a home at 114 Columbia Ave. sustained heavy damage as well and while it is suspected at this time that it will also have to razed, the final determination will be made by the homeowner’s insurance company.

Pronesti said damage was also reported to two homes on Stanford Avenue, two homes on the south side of Columbia Avenue directly facing the home that exploded, and three additional homes to the east of the home that was razed.

He praised first responders from the fire department for quickly handling the situation.

“It is an absolute miracle that no one got hurt and my guys did a phenomenal job keeping the fire from spreading,” he said.

“This is something that could have easily taken out the whole block. I have never seen a home explode in that manner in my 25 years as a firefighter.”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com, Anna Merriman at 329-7245 or amerriman@chroniclet.com and Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.