By Jenny Neyman
While the loss of four homes is nothing to be celebrated, residents and emergency responders to natural gas-fueled explosions on Lilac Lane in Kenai following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake early Sunday morning are calling the situation miraculous, since no one was hurt and everyone got out alive.
“The second house, when it exploded, it blew off its foundation, it blew its garage door across the street and then caught the home on fire,” said Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker. “It just happened that nobody was around there. We had crews within a pretty close distance of it. There was a tree out in front of the home that blocked a bunch of the debris from flying too far and injuring anybody. So we were lucky there was nobody in the area at the time of the explosion.”
Residents along Lilac Lane, Cook Inlet View Drive and Wells Way were evacuated early Sunday while emergency responders and utility companies worked around the clock to stop gas leaks in the area. The neighborhood parallels the Kenai Spur Highway on the Cook Inlet bluff side, behind Doyle’s Fuel Service, across the highway from Wildwood Correctional Facility.
Misty Schoendaller lives at 1215 Lilac. She was drifting off to sleep when the earthquake hit at 1:30 a.m. She got dressed, grabbed her cellphone and headed outside.
“About the time I got out the door the house next to mine exploded and knocked me back. And when the explosion happened it was really weird because it was like coming out from the kitchen area, and the front of the house kind of came out and then went back in, and black smoke everywhere. I mean, it was bad. It was real bad,” Schoendaller said.
She called 911 and ran to next door to 1213 to see if she could help. Vinnie Calderon was in the front yard, shouting for his family to get outside. Miraculously, neither he, his fiancée nor the two kids in the house were injured in the explosion.
Janice Gottschalk lives with her fiancé, brother and three kids at 1211 Lilac, to the left of Calderon.
“About 1:30 a.m. the earthquake hit, and probably about 1:40, 1:45 a.m. I heard my neighbor’s house blow up,” she said. “The gas blew off the roof. They thankfully made it out. And then we were all told probably about five minutes later to evacuate our house, as well,” she said.
Kenai police officers arrived within minutes of the explosion, Schoendaller said.
“There were things on fire outside of the house on the ground and the Kenai police were trying to extinguish it with extinguishers, and it just kept coming back,” she said.
The neighbors piled into an apartment across the street as the Kenai Fire Department worked on Calderon’s house, about a dozen people anxiously waiting for whatever might come next.
By 3 a.m., emergency personnel noticed a strong smell of gas in the area and told neighborhood residents they had to evacuate.
When she left Lilac, Schoendaller expected to come back to her home.
“I didn’t think anything was going to happen with my house because the fire department was here and it looked like they were going to be able to contain it, so nobody thought they were going to lose their homes except that one (that exploded),” she said.
An emergency shelter was set up at the Kenai National Guard Armory. Sgt. 1st Class Albert Burns got the phone call from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management.
“They called me at 3 o’clock this morning and said, ‘We have people displaced.’ And I go, ‘OK, I’ll be there in 15 minutes. I’d already been awake because of the earthquake and as soon as I got the call and Dan said his name it was like, ‘OK,’ I knew what was going on,” Burns said.
Like most people on the peninsula, he and his family had been jolted awake by the largest quake ever recorded in Cook Inlet. And like most homes on the peninsula, not much damage had been done.
“The house rocked pretty good. We woke up, my wife and I, and it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re having an earthquake. Oh, hey, this is a good one. Right on!” Burns said. “Some stuff broke, stuff fell off the walls. The kids were scared, but when everything came down to it they were talking about how cool it was. They’re Alaskan kids so it’s like, ‘OK, whatever.’”
At the shelter, uncertainty mixed with the rapidly deteriorating excitement from the quake.
“I thought it was kind of cool because that was the first (earthquake) I really felt. It was like, ‘Awesome!’ I thought it was fantastic,” said Nancy Kroker.
She lives in Kasilof but was staying with her son and his girlfriend in their one-story apartment at 1225 Lilac because she needs knee surgery and can’t go up or down stairs.
Jessica Dennis, Kroker’s son’s girlfriend, was much less enthusiastic, as she bustled her daughter and Kroker out of the apartment and called 911.
“She didn’t think it was so fun,” Kroker said.
By midmorning, about 45 evacuees had checked in, with that number growing to 60 by the end of the day. Cots were set up and donations from local businesses and individuals started rolling in. Walmart, where Gottschalk works, started sending supplies within an hour of the shelter opening, she said.
Renee Duncan, of Soldotna, heard about the evacuations early Sunday morning and began calling businesses to secure donations. McDonald’s, Safeway, Fred Meyer, Kaladi Brothers and Home Depot pitched in.
“I went and gathered up a bunch of different stuff from them and brought it over. So I’m just going to spend time today and see if I can help out with anything,” Duncan said.
Kenai police officers came by regularly to give updates. By 10:30 a.m., Lt. David Ross reported that the fires were under control.
“There’s still a problem with the natural gas there. Enstar’s got lots of equipment there, lots of people there. The gas is bubbling out of the ground in some places, so it’s still not a safe place to return to. The gas is shut off to the neighborhood, so that should dissipate, and the fires are just about out. That’s the good news part of it,” Ross said.
He then asked to see the residents of 1211, 1213, 1215 and 1217 Lilac Lane.
“They wanted to talk to us and you know that it’s bad news,” Schoendaller said.
The four houses were destroyed.
Gottschalk was dazed. She and her family, like most people in the shelter, were still in their pajamas.
“We made it out with everything on our backs. Our house is a complete and total loss,” she said. “They said there’s probably no chance of us going in and seeing if there’s anything salvageable. But I’m thanking God that we made it out, thanks to the fire department and the police department.”
She didn’t think the family’s pets had been as lucky.
A while later, restless boredom was setting in for most in the shelter, despite a giant TV and DVD player from Walmart, plus books, games and other donations that had been sent. They were waiting to hear when they could go back to their homes to at least get medication or a change of clothes.
Gottschalk said her kids were shaken but doing OK. Joseph, 12, was playing Monopoly with Duncan. Mia, 9, was lying on a cot under a stuffed animal, immobile and seemingly oblivious to the noise and bustle around her. Sara, 10, alternated between reading a book and roaming the Armory, hard to miss with neon hearts on her pajamas.
“Usually I just lie down. That’s all I basically do, lie down and wander,” Sara said.
“They’re upset,” Gottschalk said. “They’re hiding it right now, but they’re upset.”
‘Tragic series of events’
Meanwhile, emergency crews were busy on Lilac.
“We basically had everyone available in our fire department out there with this emergency,” Tucker said.
The Nikiski Fire Department and Central Emergency Services provided backup to help handle any other service calls that day. Luckily for emergency personnel, damage from the earthquake was minimal across the peninsula, or it could have taxed resources.
“It’s a good partnership with our neighboring departments that we were able to help each other out,” Tucker said. “Obviously, four families have lost their homes, but we were very fortunate that this was the only damage.”
When firefighters got on scene, Calderon’s home, 1213 Lilac, was ablaze following the explosion. They turned off the natural gas to the home and requested that Enstar respond to shut off gas to the area. Firefighters got the blaze under control and emergency personnel worked on evacuation. Unbeknownst to anyone, Schoendaller’s home had been filling with gas. A little after 3:30 a.m. it exploded with such force that it blew off its foundation and the garage door shot across the street.
“That explosion also then caught the other homes on fire, so it was just a tragic series of events,” Tucker said.
Luckily, fire, police and Enstar personnel didn’t happen to be at the house at the time and residents had already been evacuated.
“The folks in the Lilac Lane area were very cooperative and got out,” Tucker said. “We were very lucky that nobody was hurt or injured. But the potential was there to do that, and we’re real thankful that everybody cooperated,” Tucker said.
Schoendaller’s neighbor to the right, at 1217 Lilac, as well as the house Gottschalk was renting on the other side of Calderon’s, went up in flames.
Investigators might never know what ignited the gas in either explosion.
“Unfortunately, because gas travels, once it catches aflame it will travel back through where the fuel is, and sometimes it’s very difficult to pinpoint what the exact cause was,” Tucker said.
The Kenai Fire Department occasionally gets calls regarding a natural gas leak — someone backed into a meter or cut a line while digging — but they’re rare and usually not ignited. It’s a matter of firefighters shutting off the gas at the meter, or getting Enstar to shut it off to a larger section of a neighborhood, and standing by while it dissipates.
It wasn’t so easy following the quake.
“In this case, with the lines being potentially ruptured and other things, that’s where Enstar is going out and they’re actually digging through the ground and getting to the actual line itself and crimping the line in the ground,” Tucker said. “Enstar responded very quickly and has been working diligently to mitigate and make sure nothing else happens with the fuel system.”
By late Sunday night, Enstar crews had completed most repairs to the lines and could start restoring gas service to the neighborhood. Homer Electric Association restored power, as well. By Monday morning, there were still a few houses without power and gas, as there was still some concern about gas leaks, but the streets were re-opened and residents were allowed back into the area.
Lilac was still a construction zone, with open pits surrounded by dirt piles dotting the road. Yellow caution tape crisscrossed a couple doorways. Work trucks from Enstar, HEA, the borough and fire department leapfrogged up and down the street or parked in the crusty snow. A CAT rumbled by, its tracks thwapping along the pavement. Beeping backup indicators pierced the air.
Schoendaller came with her friend, Kathy Waterbury, on Monday morning.
Where her house had stood was a cement hole in the ground, the basement uncovered, with the hulks of her washer and dryer open to the sky. The rest of it was a jumbled, charred snarl strewn across her lawn. Calderon’s house to the left was in a similar state, with tendrils of smoke still rising from smoldering heaps of junk. The house to Schoendaller’s right was still standing, its front windows intact and barbecue grill looking pristine on the front porch. But the left side of the house was charred and sagging, and a peek inside a blown-out window showed an interior rotted from smoke, water and flames.
Vehicles parked in between the homes had melted tires, paint and interiors, with windows busted and engine guts herniating out onto the ground.
Chunks of insulation and other debris were caught in the trees, and someone had hauled Schoendaller’s twisted metal garage door back to her property.
It was nothing at all like the house she’d left the night before.
“It was gorgeous,” she said. “The front part of it was cedar wood partial ways up and then it was blue and cream sides, but on the wood parts my dad cut out and painted — he’s an artist — some wooden bears and wooden moose that were on the front. And we saved the bears. Not so much the moose, but the bears were saved,” Schoendaller said.
Her grandkids’ playhouse was still standing in the backyard, with a shiny yellow slide providing a bright spot amid the sodden, blackened wreckage. That’s about all that survived.
The loss stings like the smell of charred metal and melted plastic, but not so badly in the greater scheme of things. Schoendaller unfortunately learned a larger context for loss when her husband died last year.
“Everybody is saying, ‘Aren’t you upset?’ Well, of course I’m upset, but if I can make it through losing my husband, this is going to be child’s play,” she said.
Of everything that was destroyed, the family mementos from her husband, Mark, leave the biggest hole.
“My Bible that my husband gave me when I got baptized. His funeral book. I’ll miss a lot of those things. But my husband’s not in his book, he’s in my heart,” she said.
Insurance will pay to rebuild the house and for a rental until construction is complete. Gottschalk and Calderon’s families aren’t so lucky, but the American Red Cross sent a team on Sunday to take over operation of the shelter, and is helping find temporary housing for the families. There’s already been a Go Fund Me site set up to help Gottschalk’s family.
“I’m from Anchorage and I’m not used to this. Up there it’s a dog-eat-dog world. And down here it’s so close knit, and I’m just really overwhelmed and shocked right now,” she said.
Schollendaller and Waterbury packed up the few salvageable items found amid the debris. Some cast-iron and ceramic figurines — a bear, an elf that she’d gotten from her mother, and another one that needed its head glued back on. That was all worth taking.
“But it’s OK,” Schollendaller said. “Everybody got out alive, humanwise. One of the neighbors lost some pets and that’s really sad. But at least none of the kids and adults who live here got hurt. We all got out and we’re alive, so I’ll take that any day.”
After all, it could have been so much worse.
“Way worse. As far as I’m concerned, this whole neighborhood is way lucky,” she said.