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Survivors of Indianapolis blast move on

Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

INDIANAPOLIS – More than six months after the Koerner family watched an explosion destroy their home, they find themselves facing a precarious and stressful race against time.

Their new home in Richmond Hill has been under construction for a few short months. But matriarch Vicky Koerner said her family needs to move in by the end of July.

"The house that we are leasing has an offer on it, and they kind of want to close around that time," Vicky told The Indianapolis Star. "So it's kind of double pressure for me right now."

The Koerners are among dozens of Richmond Hill families who were thrown into turmoil by the deadly Nov. 10 blast that decimated 33 homes and damaged about 80 others. The powerful explosion killed two of their neighbors.

Rebuilding a home at rapid speed is a daunting challenge. But for a family that has already faced so much, Vicky said, having an unfinished home is not an option.

"We're not thinking about that. There is no 'don't,' 'not done.' No."

The Koerners are busy.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Vicky was clearing some boxes and tools out of the interior so construction crews could finish installing her drywall. By the end of the week, paint primer would be rolled onto every surface.

She's not the only one at work. These days, construction vehicles seem to outnumber cars in this 125-home subdivision.

Excavators roll in and out, digging foundations for new houses.

Delivery trucks line the streets, bringing in everything from drywall to insulation.

"Whatever area of construction, you'll see a truck come in," Vicky says. "Contractors, lots of deliveries. ... It almost reminds me of when the neighborhood first started.

"Almost."

The flurry of construction is a meaningful step forward for the neighborhood that's otherwise stuck watching the courtroom spectacle that came out of last fall's explosion.

Shortly before Christmas, one of Vicky's neighbors and two alleged accomplices were charged with purposefully causing the explosion. They are awaiting trial — a process prosecutors suspect could be drawn out through June 2014.

But Richmond Hill refuses to wait that long to return to normal.

Ten houses are on the road to completion. Another has been finished.

And that's only the beginning.

"There's a great interest in our neighborhood," Vicky said. Builders are buying up lots all over. She expects two more of her neighbors will start construction within the next few weeks.

"It's just been very positive. Nobody's fearful of coming in."

Vicky and her family — husband John, 17-year-old son Michael and 21-year-old daughter Emily — have come a long way since last November.

The blast forced them out of their home. It blew out their back wall, collapsed part of their second floor and whipped glass around what used to be their living room.

They scrambled to find a temporary home, first staying with Vicky's 33-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Kistner, before eventually using insurance money to lease a ranch house in the White Oaks suburb a few miles away.

They waded through insurance forms, anxiously trying to figure out how much money they'd be allotted to rebuild their house.

Middle child Emily left in January on a two-year mission trip to Darwin, Australia.

Many of the biggest hurdles are behind them, Vicky said. But a lot remain: While the brick finish on the front of their new home hints at the finished product, the inside does not.

The thick, insulated walls are barren. Basics such as light fixtures need to be installed.

But the tight deadline remains, and the rebuilding process has taken its toll.

"I was just diagnosed with high blood pressure," Vicky says, glancing at the empty space that will eventually become a living room. It can almost be mistaken for a joke — but then, her face grows serious.

"Well, hopefully that will go away once we get this done."

Their looming move-in deadline has required the Koerners to visit their property almost constantly. Hardly a day goes by where Vicky isn't in the neighborhood or planning her next steps.

But it wasn't always that way — in the first few months after the explosion, much of Vicky's plans for the new house happened off-site, at her nearby leased home.

Not so for some of her neighbors. Eileen Browne, who lives next to the Koerners, never left.

"We returned to our house the day after the explosion," Browne said.

For the past few weeks, she has watched houses go up. But she also remembers when they came down.

"I'd wake up in the morning to a 'crunch, crunch' sound," she said. "And you'd go outside to see which house is coming down today. So it was a tough time."

Browne's house was spared demolition. But looks are deceiving — and while the house appears to be on steady footing, Browne worries that won't always be the case.

Five months after the explosion, a window suddenly cracked. She has found six fractures in her basement wall. Late last week, she said she was able to come to an agreement with her insurance company over repair costs. But it was a hard road to that point.

"The people that had their houses knocked down, I'm not saying it was any easier," she said, "but as far as their long-term future is concerned, they'll know what their house is all about."

Other homes are still boarded up. Browne said one of her neighbors hasn't been back since November.

"The neighborhood's a mess."

Vicky and her neighbors know it's going to take a long time before the signs of destruction disappear.

The site where the blast occurred, after all, is still under investigation. It's fenced off from the public, some items still sitting on top of the disturbed ground — such as a miniature landfill. An eyesore.

"It's silly," Koerner said. "There's nobody investigating."

But her focus isn't on that case anymore.

Now, it's all about her vision for the new home. During a tour of the new house, she's able to conjure up the layouts for each room without taking a breath.

Michael's room is blue. John gets his own storage cabinet. "I'm just focusing on what I can change, what I can do here," she says. "Just moving on with our lives."