At least nine families who fled from their homes in the Takoma Park blocks most heavily affected by last month's explosions and fires still have not been able to move back, but most say they hope to return.
Residents of 500 households in Takoma Park and Chillum were forced to flee Dec. 16 after gasoline was accidentally pumped into the sewer system, touching off the explosions and fires.
Nearly all were able to return that night or the next day, but five houses along Westmoreland Avenue and Ray Road, including one with six rental units, were too badly damaged to be reoccupied. More than a dozen houses in the area had some fire and smoke damage.
To date, no lawsuits have been filed against any of the companies involved in delivering the gasoline to a Takoma Park heating company, where it was mistakenly pumped into the sewers.
However, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is adding up the damages and cost of repairing the sewer system and will sue to recover those expenses from the firms, said Marjorie Johnson, a commission spokeswoman.
Those hardest hit by the explosions and fires seem to be the families who rented apartments at 6906 Westmoreland Ave., a large, white house divided into six units. Fire officials say it is still unsafe for occupants.
None of the residents had renter's insurance, said the owner, Robert Burchell. He said his own insurance will protect him from rent losses while the building is vacant and will finance most repairs.
The basement of the house was badly burned, and there was considerable smoke damage to the upstairs apartments, said Burchell, who lives elsewhere in Takoma Park.
Among the displaced tenants are Sandra Knight, her husband, Paul, and their three children, ages 5, 8 and 11. The Red Cross put the family up in emergency housing at the Hampshire Motor Inn for three days after the fire, Sandra Knight said.
The Knights paid for a few more days at the hotel and after they made repeated phone calls to a number of Montgomery County agencies and officials, the county social services department agreed to pick up further bills for the Knights' motel room.
Last week, subsidized housing was found in Laurel for the family, and last weekend the Knights moved into a town house.
Charities donated canned good and clothing to the family after the fire, Knight said, but a lack of cooking facilities in their motel room forced her to borrow money from friends to feed her family.
The holidays were less than bright for the family. In fact, Knight said, "Christmas was just awful."
Her 11-year-old daughter, Tina, had a birthday the day after the fire, Knight said. "She thought she wasn't going to have a birthday, but we pulled it off with the help of my brother-in-law," she said.
Knight helps run food-vending stands for District Enterprises for the Blind and her husband is unemployed. She said she has not returned to work since the fire and her children have not gone back to school because the family does not have enough money for transportation.
Most of the other tenants have resettled, Knight and Burchell said. One man moved back to New Jersey with his family; two families found apartments nearby; and a fifth tenant, a college student, is staying with Burchell until he can make other arrangements. Burchell said he does not know where the sixth family is.
Arthur McDonald and his family owned a small house on Westmoreland Avenue, a block from the Knights, that was gutted by fire. The screen door on the front of the house now hangs awkwardly by a hinge, and the back yard is filled with charred furniture. The McDonalds are still saddened at the loss of their three dogs, killed by fire in the basement.
Although the house will have to be rebuilt, the family is doing well, said McDonald, who works in the housekeeping department of Providence Hospital. Many of his coworkers have donated food, clothing and furniture, he said.
"The other reason we didn't have any problems is because the insurance company came out the first night," said a son, Alex McDonald, 19. The family's policy provided nearly $10,000 to stay in a nearby high-rise apartment complex, Arthur McDonald said.
The McDonalds expect to return to their home in late spring, but have not received estimates on what it will cost the insurance company to replace the house.
But John Fleming, a Westmoreland Avenue resident and construction contractor whose house was slightly damaged in the December incident, estimated a house similar to the McDonalds' would cost about $75,000 to build. Fleming said many homes in the neighborhood would fetch $60,000 to $75,000 in today's real estate market.
The Prince George's Fire Department said nine houses were damaged on the Prince George's side of the bi-county city, most of them along Ray Road.
Little information was available this week about what has happened to those residents, however. A few homes are boarded up, neighbors say, and the residents are staying with relatives. County social service officials said they have not received any requests for services from those fire victims.
One household, that of James Ferrell, 69, and his wife, was displaced from Ray Road. Ferrell said his insurance company is paying for their stay at a motel until the house is repaired.
He said things are going as well as can be expected, but the damage at his house is "pretty near to hell as you can go."