email@example.com On a sweltering summer evening, the four Metzger children seem perfectly content cooling off in a backyard pool.
Once in a while, the splashing and shouting die down, and it gets quiet.
Then someone will say it.
"I want to go home."
But "home" doesn't exist anymore.
One year ago today, a West Lampeter Township car wash exploded, damaging Charles and Dianne Metzger's mobile home of 21 years beyond repair - and shaking the foundation of their lives.
Losing a home would be devastating for any family. But it's especially traumatic for the Metzgers, whose four children have autism spectrum disorders.
Children with autism often struggle with changes in routine. And the family has endured major upheaval in the past year, including a move more than 20 miles south, to Peach Bottom, near the Maryland border and far from family and friends.
Lillian, 13, Stephanie, 11, Brandon, 10, and Robert, 7, had to change schools. They also lost clothing, furniture, toys and other belongings.
The explosion left the Metzgers suddenly homeless and essentially starting over. Expenses soared, and they still struggle to pay their bills.
It began last July 1, when a propane leak caused by a minor car accident triggered an explosion at United Car Wash, 1004 Willow Street Pike, just outside Lancaster city.
The Metzgers lived in Engleside Mobile Home Park, separated from the car wash by a narrow patch of tall grass. Their home was one of five condemned due to structural damage.
The Metzgers, who did not have insurance, were the only family with children displaced by the explosion.
A year later, it's easy for the Metzgers to dwell on what they no longer have. But despite their lack of material possessions, they realize the loss could have been far worse.
Shuddering, Dianne recalls the two newly filled propane tanks that sat just outside their mobile home that night.
Investigators told her that a block wall left standing at the car wash contained the explosion and probably saved her family's lives.
Dianne and Charles lived in the 14-by-70-foot mobile home for most of their 25-year marriage.
The home, with three bedrooms and two baths, wasn't fancy, but they could afford the mortgage payments.
Dianne, 43, works as housekeeping manager at the Lancaster Arts Hotel. Charles, 62, collects disability benefits, due to a heart condition.
As of October 2010, the Metzgers owned the home free and clear. Now, Dianne says, "The only thing left of the mobile home is a piece of paper that says we own the mobile home."
Dianne speaks freely and often emotionally about the past year. Charles prefers not to talk about it.
In the early morning hours of last July 1, Dianne and the three youngest children slept in the master bedroom. Lillian spent the night at her aunt's house.
At around 2 a.m., Charles, who was watching TV in the living room, heard a loud banging sound coming from the car wash.
About 90 minutes later, there was an explosion so strong that it woke people sleeping in homes two miles away. Millersville University's seismograph - about four miles away - recorded tremors.
At first, Dianne thought a tree had hit the roof. Then she looked out the window in the direction of the car wash.
"It was just gone," she says.
The blast caused the Metzgers' walls to shift and crack. The TV was smashed. The glass doors fell off the shower. Dishes spilled from the kitchen cabinets and shattered on the floor.
"The windows were broken," Dianne says. "The ceiling was caving in."
A fan ripped loose from the bedroom ceiling and dangled over the king-sized bed where the children slept.
No one was hurt in the explosion, which caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the car wash and neighboring homes and businesses.
West Lampeter Township inspectors condemned five of the mobile homes. Others sustained more minor damage, such as broken windows.
The Metzgers were allowed inside their home briefly to take what they could carry. They were forced to leave behind many of their possessions, including furniture.
The children lost favorite toys, including Stephanie's stuffed horses and Robert's Nintendo DS. Everything in the kitchen went in the trash. Even the washer and dryer were wrecked.
For a month, the Metzgers lived in a four-person camper in a relative's Peach Bottom backyard. During that time, heavy rain ruined most of their clothes.
The Metzgers are immensely grateful for community help, including $10,000 from local autism groups. The Red Cross bought groceries, and the Lancaster County Council of Churches donated gifts for Christmas.
When the Metzgers had a mortgage, they also had homeowners insurance. But once the mortgage was paid, they had to find a new insurer, Dianne says.
Two companies turned them down. One said the mobile homes' proximity to each other posed a fire hazard. Another said the park was on a flood plain. (The area next to the Conestoga River flooded once, as far as Dianne knows: during Hurricane Agnes, in 1972.)
"Maybe I should have pursued it further," she says. "Nothing happened in the 21 years we lived there. I thought, What could happen?"
Dianne does not expect to receive anything significant from insurance companies representing the car wash owner or driver involved in the initial accident.
In February, the Metzgers' mobile home was torn down.
As Dianne walked through one final time, she remembered the children's first days home from the hospital and special meals with relatives who are now deceased.
"I couldn't part with it," she says.
The four Metzger children were diagnosed with autism at the same time, about four years ago.
Then, at age 3, Robert didn't say a word. "No doubt, he's autistic," a doctor matter-of-factly reported.
When Dianne raised concerns about her three older children, they too were evaluated.
The children have varying symptoms and degrees of autism. A therapist is helping them through the trauma of the past year.
The children's transfer from Lampeter-Strasburg to Solanco schools has been a big adjustment.
At the time of the explosion, Lillian was still coping with the sudden death of a beloved uncle the previous summer. She is still shaken by the thought that she could have lost her parents and siblings, too.
Lillian, a soon-to-be high-school freshman, says the worst thing she lost in the explosion was "nothing that could be replaced. My friends. My school."
Stephanie will start middle school this fall. She was an A and B student until her grades slipped last year.
Stephanie now has intense separation anxiety. She sleeps in her mother's room and often wants to sit on her lap. "There's no leaving my side," Dianne says.
Brandon is angry. He lashes out by kicking, hitting and cursing.
And for a long time, when the Metzgers passed the mobile home park, Robert tried to jump out of the car.
The Metzgers' lot in the mobile home park is now empty, except for a bright-blue storage shed and a few concrete blocks. Homes on both sides are vacant, their windows boarded up.
At the former car wash, only the bays' concrete floors remain. A large "For Sale" sign sits in the parking lot.
The Metzgers had trouble finding a new home that allowed children and pets, Dianne says. More than half of her salary goes toward their rent-to-own property in Peach Bottom.
"It's killing us," she says. "We have nothing month to month."
But the kids love the big backyard and modest plastic pool, which they couldn't have at the mobile home park.
Most family, friends and the children's therapists are in or near Lancaster city, a 45-minute drive. Dianne's monthly gasoline bill hits $400.
Dianne says she hasn't missed a day of work since right after the explosion. Her co-workers of five years "were there for me through this whole thing, and they still are," she says.
The Metzgers had to replace most of their furniture. They buy new clothes only for special occasions, such as back-to-school shopping.
Some months finding money for groceries is hard, Dianne says. They sometimes pick up cereal and other staples from a church food pantry.
There's been one bright spot in the past year: The verbal skills of Robert, now 7, are finally blossoming.
He used to say one word at a time. Now he speaks in short sentences, and his eye contact has improved.
Robert's favorite word is "mine."
He guards things that are "his." He doesn't want anyone to take them away.
(Copyright 2012 Lancaster Newspapers. All rights reserved.)