Richland, IA – By Mike McWilliams

Iowa City Press-Citizen

The Jerry and Juanita Usovsky home in Richland was destroyed by an explosion Sept. 6, 1999. Seven died and six were injured in the house explosion five years ago.Des Moines Register file photo

Bev Gartner is reminded every morning when she lathers the grafted skin on her arms and legs with lotion before getting dressed. Whenever she sees an explosion on television, she looks away.

Jerry Usovsky is reminded on sleepless nights when he reaches across the bed to touch an empty pillow and every day as he raises his surviving daughter alone.

Both are reminded every day of the house explosion that killed seven and injured six five years ago today during a Labor Day family gathering in Richland, a town 50 miles south of Iowa City.

“It makes you realize how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away from you,” said Gartner of Iowa City. “I believe God has a plan for me, and there is a reason why I’m still here. I may never know why I’m still here, but there is a reason.”

The blast, caused by a broken propane gas line outside Usovsky’s Oak Street home, killed Gartner’s parents, Dale and Marjorie Countryman of Birmingham; three of her sisters, Marlene Countryman and Dorothy Countryman, both of Fairfield, and Juanita Usovsky, Jerry Usovsky’s wife of 12 years, of Richland; brother-in-law, Ed Cunningham of Fairfield; and Usovsky’s 6-year-old daughter, Ashley Usovsky.

Now, five years later, Gartner, Usovsky and some of the other blast survivors say the pain of Labor Day 1999 still lingers. But they have found strength to move on through faith and family while also finding a cause in advocating for gas detection devices in every home.

It felt like a wave

Sept. 6, 1999, began just like any other Labor Day for Gartner and her family. It was tradition to have a big family gathering and barbecue on that day at Jerry and Juanita Usovsky’s Richland home.

While the unsuspecting group of family and friends gathered upstairs, the basement was slowly filling with propane gas. Investigators later learned that Jerry Usovsky unknowingly severed the propane line with a metal fence post days before while building a pen for the family dog.

With the adults gathered around the dining room table and the children in the living room, the party carried on after lunch. Family members caught up on each other’s news and “just had a good time,” Gartner recalled.

Then, about 3:45 p.m., Gartner said she felt a “whoosh” before flying through the air and dropping into the pitch-black basement. In the darkness, she felt Dyer next to her.

“I said, ‘Barb, this house just blew up. What … are we going to do?'” Gartner said.

Elsewhere, Gartner’s youngest son, Trey, his friend, Josh Kleinmeyer, Gartner’s brother-in-law, Jerry Usovsky of Richland and his 8-year-old daughter, Marlena Usovsky, were equally confused but alive.

The two women looked up, saw a patch of daylight and walked toward it. Gartner helped Dyer escape because she had a broken leg. At the time, Gartner said, she felt no pain. Doctors later told her that probably was because the third-degree burns had seared away her nerve endings.

“I think at that point, I knew I was burned, I just didn’t realize how badly because I was up walking around, I was conscious, and I could see what was going on,” Gartner said. “I remember it was like wet paper towels hanging from the end of my fingers. It was the skin, but I didn’t realize that’s what it was.”

Gartner suffered third-degree burns on about 68 percent of her body, including her arms, legs, hands and feet.

Unlike most of the blast victims who were found in the basement, Usovsky said he remembered waking up in the attic, which was now at the ground level. From the basement, Usovsky said he heard cries for help.

“I’m sure I got knocked out,” Usovsky said. “When I woke up, I couldn’t figure out how I got up there.”

Usovsky suffered third-degree burns on 25 percent of his body, including his arms, legs and forehead.

Trey Gartner, who was 10 at the time of the blast, said he doesn’t remember much of the actual explosion. He said he remembered sitting on a couch with his friend, Josh Kleinmeyer, and cousin Marlena, trying to figure out how to play a board game.

“I remember waking up, asking what happened and seeing the house on fire,” said Trey, now 15, a freshman at Regina High School.The blast knocked Trey unconscious, and he broke his right elbow and burned his left hand.

The aftermath

After paramedics loaded her in the ambulance, they told Gartner they would have to stick a tube down her throat. Surprised at this because moments before she was walking and talking fine, she asked them if her injuries were that bad.

“I don’t think they really answered me. So my next question was, ‘Am I going to die?'” Gartner said. “Somebody spoke up and said, ‘Not if we can help it.’ Then I said, ‘Tell my husband and my kids that I love them.'”

For the next six weeks, Gartner said, she was in and out of consciousness because of sedative drugs. She does remember a few things, like the excruciating pain of the daily baths at the hospital and seeing her husband and children for the first time after the blast.

But there was one visit she wasn’t expecting. While in the intensive care unit, Gartner said she looked up from her bed and saw her parents and sister who died in the explosion standing in a corner of the room.

“I just believe they came to give me their strength to keep going,” Gartner said. “I’m not afraid of death anymore because I’ve known love: the love of family, the love of friends, the love of him (her husband) and the kids.”

After 11 initial surgeries, Gartner started to heal and the physical therapy began. The scar tissue began to tighten, which required Gartner to stretch her fingers and hands.

“I remember being in tears because it hurt,” she said. “But I knew that I had to do that in order to get back and be able to move again.”

Trey underwent therapy for his hand but required no skin grafts.

Josh broke his femur and underwent a three surgeries to completely fix the broken bone in his left leg. The young soccer player was troubled that he might miss playing and practicing for a while.

“When I arrived at the hospital, one of my first questions was, ‘Will I be able to play soccer again?'” Josh said. “The doctor said, ‘Yes, but it will be a while.'”

Moving on

Gartner said she and her two surviving sisters today plan to visit the Fairfield cemetery where those who died in the blast are buried. Gartner said she tries to make it to the cemetery at least once every couple of months.

But the anniversary, she said, is undoubtedly going to be hard to deal with.

“It’s going to be a tough day,” she said. “Physically, I’ve healed as much as I can, and I’ve got to keep doing physical therapy to keep moving, but the emotional healing has probably been the worst part.”

After 13 total surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy and counseling, Gartner said she has drawn strength from her faith, family, friends, other burn survivors and her deceased family members to help her move on. She now volunteers twice a month at the University Hospitals’ burn unit to speak with and console other burn survivors and their families.

During those visits, Gartner said, she shows the pictures taken of her when she was first admitted to the hospital.

“It took me a while to look at those photographs because they were so awful looking and graphic, but by looking at them, I can see how far I’ve come,” Gartner said. “I take those pictures along with me and show them and they say, ‘Wow, that was you?'”

She also tells her story and spreads the word about fire safety at local schools and other groups.

Although she can’t stay in the sun too long, has to wear sunscreen to protect her fragile grafted skin and wears special padded shoes over two pairs of socks to keep her feet from blistering, Gartner said she keeps up with her children’s soccer games and other outdoor activities.

Trey, who is getting ready to learn how to drive, continues to play soccer and run cross-country at Regina.He and Josh still talk and see each other quite often, but the explosion hardly, if ever, comes up.

“All my family members that I lost, that’s been the hardest part to cope with,” Trey said.

Josh, 15, a freshman at City High, still thinks about the explosion, but time has started to heal the emotional wounds.

“It bothered me that seven people had to die and why I was chosen not to be one of them,” Josh said. “I put it in my past and realize that God has plans for everybody, and that was one of the bumps I had to overcome in my life.”

The survivors of the blast sued five gas suppliers and two appliance manufacturers in May 2000. All settled out of court. The settlements that aren’t sealed show more than $6.3 million in awarded damages.Gartner is also an advocate for tougher laws on propane and gas companies. In particular, she said, she thinks gas companies and appliance manufacturers do not effectively warn consumers of the dangers of using and storing propane and natural gas.

She also hopes to raise awareness of gas detectors. The devices, available at some hardware and retail stores, can be plugged into a wall electrical outlet and emit a shrill ring when gas is detected.

Gartner now has several gas detectors in her home and said the explosion could have been prevented had her brother-in-law and sister known about them.

“I just don’t think people know as much as they need to know about it because I’ve learned a lot in the last five years,” Gartner said. “A lot more than I ever cared to learn about.”

Back in Richland

Twenty-five days after the explosion, Usovsky was released from University Hospitals and moved his daughter to Fairfield. He has since sold most of his real estate and rental property to devote his time to Marlena, who is now 13.

The two keep busy painting some of his remaining properties, doing yard work and other activities.

“Kids are a full-time job, especially if you’re a single parent. It worked a lot better with two. Parenting isn’t meant for one person, there’s no doubt,” Usovsky said. “When you’ve been with that person for 12 years, it’s hard because that person isn’t next to you every night. Every night we were close and that void is tough. It’s hard … and you think of it at night when you go to bed, you think of your wife and your family.

“I look at the pictures, and it brings up a lot of emotions and every day you’re dealing with that. They’re gone, and it’s another day without them.”

In the five years since the explosion, Usovsky said, he replanted grass and flowers on the property around the foundation of his former home. It was all that remained, until Usovsky finally sold the land seven or eight months ago, and it was bulldozed by the new owner.

Rebuilding wasn’t an option. Although Usovsky said he had many great memories from living on Oak Street, that one “terrible day” ruined his future there.

Five years later, Usovsky said he still is rebuilding his life, admitting it’s been a slow process. Together with Marlena, he is confident the two will persevere — one day at a time.

“I’m thankful for what we had,” Usovsky said. “I wouldn’t change anything as far as the years we had, and I might have a future yet. I don’t know. I take it a day at a time, and I don’t know what the future holds.”