Firth, NE – Six days before Christmas, the Kadavy family scavenged for photographs, presents and personal belongings in the smoldering rubble of their home.

They found little on a cold, blustery Thursday morning: a computer they hope will have its hard drive intact, a small, ornamental Santa in a hooded robe, a box of fourth-grade papers, some jewelry and an expired credit card.

Anna Kadavy, the matriarch of the family, cupped a wooden template of a kneeling angel in her hands. She used dozens of them to make Nativity sets for Christmas. She didn’t know Thursday if any more survived the blaze.

“It’s like I’m thinking in slow motion,” said anna, who wore a white face mask to filter smoke and ash. “I’m talking to people and forgetting what I’m talking about. I can’t make sense of it. I couldn’t look at it yesterday.”

A massive explosion Wednesday afternoon lifted the house and scattered debris for more than 150 feet. A door from a mudroom got thrown into a nearby tree. Black smoke was visible for miles.

“It had to be propane,” Dan Kadavy said Thursday. “It blew. I can’t imagine anything else.”

He spent six years building the house, assessed at $425,000.

Dan Kadavy was working next door in his shop when he heard a loud explosion between 3 and 3:30 p.m. Wednesday and ran to investigate.

“You couldn’t see in front of your face,” he said. “There was so much stuff coming down … it was like a smoke bomb.”

The first thing he did was turn off the propane and electricity. Then he grabbed a garden hose to wet down his shop about 70 feet away.

“The flames were going in that direction,” he said.

The shop was not damaged, and the family’s two dogs survived.

The couple’s daughter, Dana, a senior at Norris Public Schools, got home just in time to see the house in flames. Anna and Rachel, 21, were in Lincoln at a movie and didn’t hear the news until they turned their phones back on about 4:15.

Firefighters from Firth, Cortland and Adams had the fire under control within an hour.

“There was nothing they could do,” Dan Kadavy said.

They kept pouring water on the propane tank to cool it and keep it from exploding, he said.Kadavy suspects a propane leak inside the house caused the explosion, which lifted it from its foundation and blew out the sides.

Deputy State Fire Marshal Ray Nance said the fire is under investigation and a report won’t be available until January.

Dan Kadavy owns a construction company and built the house on 16 acres he bought for $20,000 in 1994. The land is part of an old Atlas missile site between Firth and Cortland.

Initially, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the land and the groundwater below it a clean bill of health, and Dan Kadavy planned to build high-end homes and use the profits for his retirement.

But in 2005, the corps informed him the ground water was contaminated with high levels of trichloroethylne or TCE, which was used to clean missile fuel lines and causes health problems.

He finished his own home, the adjacent shop/home, a nearby guest house and a home for his brother Greg before he ran into financial problems. He and the corps have not resolved their differences on how the contaminated groundwater should be cleaned up.

Dan Kadavy said the corps is proceeding with a cleanup plan that involves drilling more than 40 wells, then injecting emulsified vegetable oil into the ground as a carbon source to boost bacteria that feed on TCE.

He said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll rebuild on the site.

Ryan Wiese, with First State Insurance Agency in Firth, said the house and its contents were insured. He said the structure is a total loss but he did not have a dollar-loss amount.

Meanwhile, the family plans to stay at Greg Kadavy’s house over the holidays.

“Christmas is our big family celebration,” Anna Kadavy said. “Everything else is secondary.”