MARENGO – When a home on Seventh Circle in Marengo exploded, destroying two homes, catching others on fire and damaging about 80 more June 11, most of the neighborhood thought the St. Clair family was dead.
“You can imagine living on a street and having people as your friends and neighbors for over 13 years, having this explosion and realizing they’re thinking you’re dead, “ said Dawn St. Clair, the matriarch of the family.
The past month has seemed like a roller coaster to the St. Clairs.
“Your house is gone. Your house just blew up. The next-door neighbors’ are on fire,” Dawn’s husband, Mike St. Clair, said as he recounted hearing the news that his home exploding had affected so many others. “It was surreal. What do you do?”
Mike’s family had just finished a trip through Arizona as they visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona, among other destinations. He remembered getting a phone call about 3 a.m. A neighbor was in hysterics on the other end, asking Mike whether his family was all with him. The St. Clairs are a family of five – with children Katie, 21; Briana, 17; and Jack, 16. Katie was away at school, and Briana and Jack were on vacation with their parents.
“Sometimes somebody stays behind or doesn’t go,” Dawn St. Clair said.
But no lives were lost. Several neighbors ran to rescue the St. Clairs’ neighbors while their homes burned to the ground.
Ross Hadlock, who lives down the block on Seventh Circle, recalled the heroic actions. Hadlock’s home shifted from its foundation because of the blast.
“Neighbors grabbed a ladder, and three guys held the ladder because there was no house to lean it up against,” Hadlock said. “[A neighbor] came down and walked toward the street with the rescuers, and the house went [down]. It almost exploded in fire.”
Mike and Dawn wanted to return to Marengo immediately, but they were unable to catch a flight until June 12.
“It’s hard to be that far away and not being able to do anything, and [the neighbors are] living it,” Mike said.
The St. Clair family and all those affected by the explosion have experienced an outpouring of support from the Marengo community. Mike said he has been overwhelmed by the response, and no one from Marengo has said an unkind word.
As of early July, the Marengo area OutReach Enterprises center had collected more than $115,000, plus $7,000 in gift cards, and counting, along with household goods and clothing, Executive Director Robert Botts said.
“The M.O.R.E center is struggling to organize all donations and gifts. They ended up putting it in a big warehouse,” Dawn said. “They couldn’t even keep it on-site.”
The smaller community surrounding Seventh Circle pulled together for its neighbors, too. Hadlock said one woman served the displaced neighbors lunch and dinner every day for a week. A YouCaring site for the St. Clair family also had raised more than $8,400 as of Thursday afternoon.
Outside of that community, however, not everyone has been so kind.
“The gapers still walk by, stand at the fence yelling, ‘Which one was first?’ And we’re trying to dig a grave for our animal,” Mike said.
The family lost a beloved cat in the explosion.
“I know everyone has curiosity and they want to see it, but sometimes it’s just too much,” Mike said.
Not knowing the exact cause of the catastrophic explosion, or the total cost of the damage, has caused the St. Clair family some heartache, as well.
“There are 15 insurance companies involved, plus the city, the county government and Nicor, and they all want a different outcome for a variety of different reasons,” Hadlock said. “Most of the evidence was blown away.”
The St. Clairs said they have felt fortunate their insurance company put them in a hotel immediately after the incident. They now are in a temporary town house in Marengo and are learning to adjust to their “new normal.”
Dawn said she feels as though she merely is existing in the new space, however. Her teenagers are rarely home, as they feel more comfortable in their friends’ familiar houses.
Briana almost quit cross country, which she has run since her freshman year of high school, because she could not get to practice. Her car, and three others, were totaled in the explosion.
Jack is unable to get a driver’s license, although he just turned 16, because his birth certificate, driver’s permit and social security card were lost.
Hadlock also said the most difficult part of the experience for his family has been trying to keep it from affecting his young daughters. He and his wife had difficulty finding a child care service that would work with their new transient lifestyle – the Hadlock family stayed in hotels for more than a month after the explosion. An area church recently donated a temporary home to them.
Within a year, the affected families hope they can be moving back into their rebuilt homes.
“We want to have a block party,” Dawn said.
“I’m glad we live here – in a small town,” Mike said. “The outreach has been … there’s no words for it.”
Hadlock said he wants to remind the community, who recently joined together to celebrate how close-knit it has become in a Marengo Strong event, that the families in and around Seventh Circle still need help.
“This isn’t going to be over quickly,” Hadlock said. “The shock wave from the blast is going to last about a year.”