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Months after blast leveled home, couple still picking up the pieces

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  February 1, 2011 02:00 PM

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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 cell phone.

“Michael, you have to come home,” Burns recalls 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 home where he had lived for nine years.

Now, nearly three months after the explosion at 17 Reynold Road, Burns and his partner are still dealing with the fallout each day. There are a million little things to do as they rebuild their life together and tie up the countless loose ends of 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 site of his former home, in the Readville section, now an empty lot that has become a dumping ground for neighborhood snowplows.

Although he tried to remain stoic, there was pain in Burns’s 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 explosion aftermath.

Upset by what he saw, Houser, 47, called Burns back and told him he shouldn’t 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 takes 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 just a few days -- an action he believes was taken on the advice of lawyers.

“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 director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services said the city has done all it can to help the couple. Jay Walsh said he acted as a liaison between the homeowners and several city agencies and private companies, starting in the immediate aftermath of the accident and was continuing right up to this week.

[He has helped them improve communication with the demolition company, cancel their cable television contract, and request a tax abatement on the property, among other tasks, and they’ve thanked him for the assistance, he said.

[“All along, we’ve been available to help them with anything that they would need,” Walsh said.

[He said the city had been unable to direct the recovery and demolition efforts because Burns and Houser had entered into an agreement with Action Emergency Services, a demolition company, just after the blast.]

The demolition took five or six weeks, Houser said, and required them to raze the foundation of their home and backfill the hole. Homeowner’s insurance helped to pay the demolition company, but it covered less than half the total 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 home that no longer exists. Since they still own the lot, they have to drive in from Dedham every time it snows and shovel their sidewalks.

Other small ironies abound. Because they were enrolled in NStar’s level-billing program, they still receive 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 they had intended for retirement or travel.

“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’s insurance will reimburse them based on their home’s value at the time of its destruction, when the market was at 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 home 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 won’t 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’re not optimistic about how much they’ll 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.''

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.


Burns Houser 1.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox / Boston.com)


Michael Burns and Bob Houser at the former site of their Readville home. Their neighbor’s house behind them was also damaged when part of their home fell on it and is now uninhabitable.

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