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Mitchell residents reflect on explosion that destroyed their homes 10 years ago

Staring at the pile of rubble that was once his home, Dennis Burnham couldn't believe what he saw. The remnants of Burnham's home -- where he had lived for 22 years -- was blown into neighboring yards and forced through windows, doors and walls. ...

Ten years ago, March 8, 2007, a natural gas explosion destroyed three homes on the 1600 block of Bridle Drive in Mitchell. Two of the families affected most have rebuilt their homes on the same lots. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Ten years ago, March 8, 2007, a natural gas explosion destroyed three homes on the 1600 block of Bridle Drive in Mitchell. Two of the families affected most have rebuilt their homes on the same lots. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

Staring at the pile of rubble that was once his home, Dennis Burnham couldn't believe what he saw.

The remnants of Burnham's home - where he had lived for 22 years - was blown into neighboring yards and forced through windows, doors and walls. Much of what he owned was strewn into the Mitchell streets for him to find, like a twisted Easter egg hunt.

Firefighters to his left worked to put out flames and a breeze pushed insulation and pictures through the air while police officers escorted shocked, confused homeowners around the scene. Burnham remembers it like it happened yesterday.

Then he opens his eyes.

He's back to present-day, sitting in his home 10 years to the day after a natural gas explosion leveled his home and two others on the 1600 block of Bridle Drive in the east side of Mitchell. The explosion happened on March 8, 2007 at his next-door neighbor's house as the result of a cracked gas line, and caused visible damage to at least seven more nearby homes. The blast was felt throughout town, but no deaths or injuries were reported.

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The force of the blast launched debris hundreds of feet away, with firefighters at the time reporting to have found debris 300 feet away from Jeanne and Robert Lorenz's home and as far away as Eighth Avenue.

"It sounds silly, but I didn't care. The house, it's just a thing," Burnham said Wednesday. "As long as everyone's OK, that's all that matters. It went boom, we cleaned up and that was the end of it."

Robert Lorenz was at work at the time of the explosion. A decade later, he still remembers hearing what he thought at the time was a "sonic boom," and brushing it off as strange, but nothing to worry about.

Shortly after, he got a phone call from a friend, informing him a house on his block was on fire. So Lorenz took an early lunch to check out the action.

In the few minutes it took him to get from work to the scene, it never crossed his mind that it would be his life that would be turned upside down.

"I looked at (Burnham's) house and it was a mess. I looked at the gal on the other side's house and it looked like a mess, too," Lorenz said. "Then I'm standing there and I go, 'Where the (heck) is my house?' "

The destruction was unlike anything Mitchell Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg had ever seen before, and he hasn't seen a similar scene since, though there have been a handful of explosions in the area in the past decade.

"I remember driving up there and seeing just total devastation - total destruction," Overweg said. "It was really something else that nobody got killed that day."

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Rebuilding

Nearly everything Lorenz and his wife, Jeanne, owned was destroyed in the explosion, sparing only a few charred photographs and chipped knickknacks that now sit in plastic totes in the couple's new home, rebuilt on the same lot.

Some aspects of his new home he likes better than the one blown away, but Lorenz said he sometimes is nostalgic about what he had. And the retiree is still working on the final touches of his and Jeanne's house, with just the basement left to be finished. A self-proclaimed handyman, Lorenz has done all of the rebuilding himself, with minimal outside help, so the 10-year project has taken on a special meaning. He anticipates the final, "small" details in the basement will be done soon.

And for the two men, the age-old sentiment that "time heals all wounds" has proven to be true. So much so, that sometimes they even forget the exact date the explosion happened, often having to call each other for confirmation.

Even still, Lorenz said he wanders the field behind his new home, in search of any remnants of what once was.

"I'm not walking around with a metal detector, but every once in awhile, something comes up out of the ground," he said. "But, man, we were so lucky. It could have been so much worse."

And the longtime neighbors say they're some of the last to remain in the neighborhood, as many of the families who lived in the area at the time of the explosion have moved away. Sometimes, Burnham said, people ask if he and the Lorenz family are still friends, or if the incident pushed them apart. The question always makes Burnham giggle.

"Why wouldn't we be," Burnham said. "If they had done that on purpose, blowing my house up, maybe not so much, but we're best friends to this day and do lots of stuff together. You have a lot of memories in your life, you can't fuss over all of them. It's just something you live through."

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