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Struggling to recover after blast

Home explosion was just the start of couple’s trials

Michael Burns (left) and Bob Houser, at the site of their destroyed home in Hyde Park’s Readville section, have endured endless red tape and challenges since the natural gas explosion. Michael Burns (left) and Bob Houser, at the site of their destroyed home in Hyde Park’s Readville section, have endured endless red tape and challenges since the natural gas explosion. (Jeremy C. Fox for The Boston Globe)
By Jeremy C. Fox
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2011

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Michael Burns, an installation and maintenance technician for Verizon, was at a customer’s house when a neighbor reached him on his cellphone.

“Michael, you have to come home,’’ Burns recalled her saying. “Your house just blew up.’’

A worker replacing water pipes in his Hyde Park neighborhood had cracked the seal on a utility line in his home, Boston fire officials said. The house filled with natural gas, requiring only a spark, probably from the water heater’s pilot light, to level the ranch house where he had lived for nine years.

Now, nearly three months after the explosion, Burns and his partner are still contending with the fallout every day. There are many little things to do as they rebuild their life and tie up countless loose ends from the old one.

For weeks, they oversaw demolition and the hauling away of debris. For the insurance claim, they had to compile exhaustive spreadsheets of their possessions, right down to how many white T-shirts were in a bureau drawer. And there were thousands of items to replace, from toothbrushes and razors to credit cards and important documents.

“It was overwhelming in the beginning, and we’re still getting repercussions,’’ Burns said recently at the explosion site, now an empty lot that has become a dumping ground for snowplows.

Although Burns tried to remain stoic, there was pain in his eyes as he recalled the morning of the accident.

Burns, 48, called his partner, Bob Houser, as he drove home from Charlestown to survey the damage. Houser, whom Burns married in 2005, was in Los Angeles on a business trip and immediately got online to find there was already media coverage — including photographs of the aftermath.

Upset by what he saw, Houser, 47, called Burns back and told him he should not go to the house. Burns, who said he was “in shock’’ that morning, felt he had to see it.

“I just couldn’t comprehend what was actually happening,’’ Burns said. “It took me a while. And then I got really sad. . . . You might see it on TV, on movies, on stuff like that and, OK, it’s a horrible thing. But when it happens to you it’s a whole different story.’’

What scared the couple most was knowing either of them could have been home that morning. Burns works Saturdays and has one weekday off each week. Houser travels frequently for his job in the pharmaceutical industry and sometimes leaves for the airport after 9 a.m.

Fortunately, no one in the densely populated neighborhood was close enough to the blast to be hurt.

In the immediate aftermath, the city took swift action, giving Burns and Houser a $5,000 check, hiring a private demolition company, and overseeing work at the site. But Houser said that support ended after a few days — an action he believes was taken on the advice of lawyers.

Boston officials did not respond to requests for comment. The city barred the company blamed for the gas explosion — Defelice Corp. of Dracut — from doing more work with city agencies pending a state investigation.

“So we went from one day having the city managing the whole thing for us and paying for the demolition to it being thrust 100 percent on us,’’ Houser said.

The demolition took five or six weeks, Houser said, and required them to raze the foundation and backfill the hole. Homeowner insurance helped to pay the demolition company, but it covered less than half the cleanup costs, and the expenses are still piling up.

For the first month and a half after the explosion, they lived out of a hotel; now they rent an apartment in Dedham while continuing to pay the mortgage on a house that no longer exists. Since they still own the lot, they have to drive in from Dedham every time it snows to shovel their sidewalks.

Other small ironies abound. Because they were enrolled in NStar’s level-billing program, they still received monthly bills for their anticipated gas use until recently. And when the demolition company removed the pipe that caused the explosion so investigators from the state Department of Public Utilities could examine it, Burns and Houser got the bill for that, as well. The ordeal has been hard on their finances, eating into savings.

“We’ve learned that it’s very much a loss game,’’ Houser said. “You only recoup a certain percentage of it. We’re hoping that will be enough to eventually rebuild a home.’’

That remains in question, though, as their homeowner insurance will reimburse them based on their house’s value at the time of its destruction, when the market was near its bottom.

Coming just three weeks before Thanksgiving, the explosion made the holidays bittersweet for the couple, who enjoyed decorating for Christmas and hosting holiday gatherings.

Now, the two are concentrating on moving forward, resolving the financial issues, and planning to build a new house on the site, if the money and the zoning restrictions will allow.

They have heard that the state completed its investigation and determined fault in the accident, but its report will not be released publicly until the party found at fault has an opportunity to respond. Then Houser and Burns can ask for reimbursement of their out-of-pocket expenses, though they are not optimistic about how much they might get.

“We’ll still get odd remarks from people saying, ‘Ah, you’re going to be millionaires,’ ’’ Houser said. “That’s not how it works. At most . . . you’re going to be lucky if you get to 80 percent. That’s the reality.’’

Still, they remain positive.

“You can get bitter or get better, I guess,’’ Houser said. “We choose to get better.’’

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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