After Marengo explosion, neighbors amazed and thankful everyone's safe
It all seemed like a dream to 19-year-old Austin Keefer.
One moment he was eating pizza puffs and talking to his dad early Sunday in the living room of their Marengo home; the next he heard a loud "boom" and saw a bright flash of light coming from his next-door neighbor's house. Then he was covered in drywall, his dad Tim was buried in debris, and he could hear his mom, Kim, screaming from the second floor, where she was trapped with his sister Hailey, 17.
In the midst of chaos, Austin had only one thing on his mind: Get his family out of the house!
The blast, which occurred about 4:50 a.m. on the 500 block of 7th Circle, set ablaze three neighboring houses, left 19 homes uninhabitable and damaged more than 50 throughout the neighborhood, Marengo Police Chief Rich Solarz said Monday.
The house Keefer's dad built 15 years ago was leveled, as was the house that exploded. Debris littered the neighborhood, and "Keep Out" signs adorned several other homes on the block that had been condemned.
Despite the destruction, authorities say no fatalities or severe injuries were reported. The residents of the home that exploded were on vacation at the time, and the entire Keefer family made it out safely.
After digging himself out of the rubble, Austin also was able to free his dad from the debris. Some quick-thinking neighbors already had brought over a ladder and helped his mom and sister down from the second floor. Good thing, Austin said, because seconds later, the entire upstairs burst into flames.
"I don't know how they thought that fast to get a ladder over here," he said. "I really can't believe it."
Austin and Tim Keefer were the only two official casualties amid all the damage. They were taken to the hospital and treated for minor burns.
To Austin, that's nothing short of a miracle.
"You can replace a house. You can't replace a body," he said. "You keep thinking about everything you lost, but we got everybody (out). We're just thankful."
Police Chief Solarz was in disbelief when he arrived to the scene about 15 minutes after the explosion that rocked the town of about 7,500 people. The 12-member police department was among the several agencies that responded, he said, and officers immediately began knocking on doors to get residents out of their houses.
"It looked like a tornado hit the area," Solarz said. "This is something you see on TV. You don't expect it in your town."
The state fire marshal's office is investigating the cause of the blast, which could be felt miles away. Solarz said police heard that some residents smelled gas in the area the night before, though nothing has been confirmed.
"I can't say that's the cause or the point of origin yet," he said.
Kyle Alt, 20, and Brittany MacInnes, 19, were sleeping in the basement of Alt's home a few houses down when they were awakened by the explosion, which felt like an earthquake and sounded like a car hitting the house.
Their basement window was blown out, pictures started falling all around them, and they could hear people screaming. When they ran outside, they were devastated to see their friends' houses engulfed in flames and heavy smoke.
"It was straight out of a horror scene," Alt said.
MacInnes added, "The screams are something I'll never forget."
Cleaning up the neighborhood and starting to rebuild will be an ongoing process for the usually quiet town, Solarz said. But in the day after the explosion, he said, the neighborhood has been pulling together to support one another.
Residents, too, are amazed at the outpouring of support they've received from the Marengo community and beyond. Law enforcement and fire entities from other municipalities have offered their assistance. Businesses, organizations and community members are organizing fundraisers and collecting donations.
"This town is very heartfelt," Alt said. "If someone's down, everybody's there."
After losing their home, their pets and all their belongings, the community assistance means the world to the Keefer family.
"It just gives me goose bumps," Austin Keefer said. "We're humbled by everyone's support. It's just surreal."