- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2016

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - When Manuel Cruz sees the face of his 2-year-old boy, smiling and laughing, it helps him endure everything he’s lost - a grandson, a daughter and a mother.

Cruz went through unimaginable grief and recurring nightmares after losing his entire family in the 2011 natural gas explosion that rocked his former Allentown neighborhood. His family, friends, church and therapists helped him through the roughest of times, but the birth of his son two years ago was his best medicine.

“I thank God every day for everything he has given me,” Cruz said recently from his home in southern Georgia. “My baby has helped me so much in my recovery. Lo quiero muchisimo (I love him so much).”

The Feb. 9, 2011, explosion and fire leveled eight row homes on the 500 block of North 13th Street, damaged dozens of others in the surrounding neighborhood and killed five people. Cruz lost his 16-year-old daughter, Katherine; 4-month-old grandson, Matthew Manuel Vega; and 69-year-old mother, Ofelia Ben. He also lost the home he was proud to call his own.

The couple next door - William Hall, 79, and his wife, Beatrice, 74 - also died.

“They were good, caring and loving people,” their son, Mark, told The Morning Call in 2013.

Cruz and Hall filed wrongful death lawsuits against UGI, which supplies gas to much of the Lehigh Valley. The company traced the explosion to an 83-year-old cast-iron pipe that cracked, sending gas into the Halls’ home. A spark, perhaps from a light switch or an appliance, ignited the gas.

Mark Hall resolved his lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. Cruz, who was at work as a truck driver at the time of the blast, settled on behalf of his grandson, but the lawsuit on behalf of his daughter and mother remain active, court records show.

As a result of the explosion, the state Public Utility Commission ordered UGI to replace all of its cast-iron pipes by 2027. In 2012, the company launched a $1.2 billion replacement program and says it is on track to meet the deadline.

Five years after the blast, the block looks much the same as it did after crews hauled away the rubble. In an empty lot where homes once stood, five white crosses bear the names of those who died.

The blast changed the street, the neighborhood and even those who survived it.

Of the five families who lost their homes to the raging fire, one of them moved out of the state and the others relocated to other parts of the Lehigh Valley. Some didn’t want to talk about it, saying it’s tough to rehash that night.

Antonio Arroyo, who lost his rented home at 530 N. 13th St., said he plans to move to Florida once his daughter gets her nursing degree.

He, his wife, his daughter and grandchild moved from place to place after the explosion, using money from a settlement the surviving residents reached with UGI to pay for meals and clothing for his family. The stress of the explosion and subsequent legal battles led to health problems that included high blood pressure and a heart attack, he said.

“I was inside my house during the explosion and it almost felt like I was sitting inside a speaker when the bass hits,” said Arroyo, who still lives in Allentown. “All you can feel is the air and the impact.”

He has experienced gas scares since then, a whiff of the pungent odor prompting a call to UGI. It worries him.

“I am just afraid that I may have to experience something like that again,” he said.

While the city haf no plans to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the blast, Arroyo planned to recognize it as he always does - by visiting the empty lot and placing flowers on each of the crosses.

Don O’Shall, who lived at 536 N. 13th St., will be thinking of the old neighborhood that day too. O’Shall and his adult son Matt haven’t lived in Allentown since 2011, when they used donations and settlement money to buy a fixer-upper in Florida - in an area without natural gas lines.

“Our settlement was too small to really afford to live in the Lehigh Valley,” said O’Shall, a locksmith who retired from Lehigh University.

He said Matt has had a tougher time than he did in recovering from the trauma.

“He was deeply affected by it, and less prepared by life for dealing with such an event,” O’Shall said. “Myself, I take life as it comes.”

It has come with mixed blessings in the past five years as the O’Shalls persevere in making a new home in Florida.

“I miss our neighborhood, our friends and the opportunities afforded by life in the Lehigh Valley that are not available here,” he said. “But I adjust.”

Fateful night

The explosion happened about 10:45 on a frigid February night, waking people even in parts of the suburbs. It forced dozens from their homes, including senior citizens who were evacuated from a nearby apartment building. Fire officials said they had not received any reports of gas leaks in the area.

The blast lit up the night sky as the fire burned most of the night. By morning, the scene looked surreal as water from fire hoses turned to ice, encasing cars and trees.

Cruz, who was hauling a load to New York, was unaware of the devastation as he slept in a hotel room. He was 42 at the time and thankful for the perfect life he was living after emigrating from the Dominican Republic. He became a U.S. citizen, found a good-paying job he enjoyed and bought his first home. He had put much labor into restoring the row home. Two weeks earlier, he placed ceramic tiles in the kitchen, and after a coat of paint in the living room, he would be finished with the renovations.

Katherine, his only child, had given birth to his grandson four months earlier. And Cruz’s mother moved in to help care for the baby so Katherine could continue with her education. His ex-wife, Ana Paulino, lived in the neighborhood too, providing Katherine and the baby with ample support when Cruz was out of town.

Cruz remembers the cold that morning, the icicles dangling from power lines when he returned to the neighborhood after receiving the dreadful call from a neighbor. When the temperature drops, it triggers that memory.

“I am always thinking of them,” Cruz said. “The weather is one of the reminders.”

There are others - birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, “days that you are with the family,” he said.

After the explosion, he moved in with relatives in Montgomery County and spent long hours driving a truck for a meat processing plant. His time off was spent at church and in therapy. He tried working longer hours to keep himself busy, but that just left him alone for hours in the truck, with only the memories of his lost family to keep him company.

Cruz said he later realized that getting back in the truck was the wrong move for his recovery. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t relax.

“It made me very sleepy,” he said. “I was up very early and drove long hours. I didn’t want to put my life in jeopardy.”

A therapist suggested a career change and possibly moving out of the state that brought him such sadness. Two years ago, he made a move, first to spend time with a sister in Puerto Rico and then to Georgia, where he settled with his new wife, his 6-year-old stepdaughter and baby Manuel.

Cruz now works in property management, a less stressful job that allows him to socialize and gives him more time with his family, with his energetic son.

“El niño es mi vida (That baby is my life),” Cruz said.

His stepdaughter, he said, could pass as Katherine’s twin.

“There are certain situations where I think I am looking at my daughter when she was younger,” he said.

He’s recovering, but he said it’s been a long process.

“For my therapy, every day is a lucha,” he said - a fight.

Cruz remains close to Paulino, Katherine’s mother, and said he would probably mark the anniversary with her. She is the only one who shares his anguish, he said.

“She is the only person who understands the pain that I am going through.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1Q1PQpg

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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