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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Like a Roller Coaster’

Residents reflect on the Weinbach home explosion one year later.

Not a day passes, Steven Hite says, that he doesn’t think of his brother, Charlie, and Charlie’s wife, Martina.

It’s been a year since a house explosion on Weinbach Avenue killed the Hites, as well as a neighbor, 29-year-old Jessica Teague. The past 12 months, Steven says, have been “like a roller coaster.” He says the community’s love and support is felt and appreciated by the family, but the tremendous loss is still fresh.

“We have memories of him,” Steven says. “You look back now, and you think, Charlie would have done this, or he would have said that. … The memories we do have of him, we cherish, and we hold each other up.”

Charlie, 43, and Martina, 37, were inside their home at 1010 N. Weinbach Ave. when it exploded on Aug. 10, 2022. Debris soared into the air; it could be seen over the trees. The early afternoon blast shook the city and vaulted Evansville into state and national news.

In November, a joint investigation with the Indiana State Fire Marshal and Evansville Fire Department ruled the explosion was “accidental” with “no indication of foul play.” The agency cited a leaking gas line in the home’s basement that was uncapped with the valve in an open position. But it is unknown how the valve was opened, or what the ignition source was.

Gas lines between the home’s meter and CenterPoint Energy’s main line were in “proper working order,” according to a news release from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

The Hites worked for Fresh Market on Evansville’s East Side, in the store’s meat department. Charlie had been employed by the store since it opened 12 years earlier, and he later convinced management to bring on Martina, as well.

“The people there loved him,” Steven says. “He had customers come by, just to buy meat from him.”

Photo of Charlie and Steven Hite provided by Steven Hite

Steven and Charlie enjoyed working with the William Henry Harrison High School football team — Steven as equipment manager, and Charlie as a volunteer performing a variety of tasks. As a tribute, members of Harrison’s squad attended the Hites’ funeral service last August in full uniform.

This month’s start of a new Harrison football season, Steven says, also brings memories of Charlie.

“The first game is on the 18th, and we have a scrimmage on the 11th,” Steven says. “He would have been there to help, meet, guide, participate, anything we needed. He loved to do it.”

The Hites were both volunteers with Special Olympics. Steven Hite says any memorial contributions may be made to Full Gospel Mission, 318 E. Tennessee St., where his brother attended.

On the anniversary date, Steven says, the Hite family will go to Charlie’s and Martina’s gravesite to place flowers. They hope to do the same at the accident scene, where there is an empty field and two boarded-up houses still standing.

“If there’s any advice I can give to someone, it’s to always cherish the people you have around you, because when you don’t have them anymore, you wish you did,” Steven says.

“Every holiday you just want to pick up the phone and say we’re getting together tonight, I want you guys to come, and you realize again that they’re not going to be there,” adds Nila Hite, Charlie’s stepmother.

In addition to the three fatalities, other residents were displaced by the explosion due to extensive home damage. The American Red Cross Southwest Indiana chapter and other agencies assisted 18 families impacted in some manner by the explosion, says Beth Sweeney, Red Cross executive director.

Among the Red Cross’ first tasks was working with the City-County Emergency Management Agency to set up a canteen at the site for first responders. A next priority was establishing a reception area at nearby Vogel Elementary School for impacted families.

Sweeney says that was a place “to welcome families, let them cool off, charge their phones, get a meal. Then we started working with them one-on-one with what their needs were.”

Some required hotel stays, while others needed financial assistance, mental health specialists, and spiritual care. Sweeney says numerous food-service providers stepped up following the explosion — MISSION BBQ, Chick-fil-A, Golden Corral, and Donut Bank were some of those — and Deaconess Health System contributed chaplain services.

Sweeney says the Red Cross worked in tandem with the Evansville Salvation Army on residents’ needs following the explosion, while the Catholic Charities Diocese of Evansville stepped in to assist with those residents’ longer-term needs.

“It was certainly a collaboration with multiple agencies and community partners, and a testament to what our community is about,” Sweeney says.

The Weinbach Avenue explosion’s anniversary also conjures vivid memories for Knight Township Trustee Kathryn Martin, whose office is about 40 yards from the site.

Martin and her chief deputy, Tony Goben, had been at lunch at Drake’s restaurant with Evansville Police Department Chief Billy Bolin and Deputy Chief Philip Smith and were driving back to work when her case manager called her in the car, telling her something had happened near the office, but she didn’t know what at the time.

Chaos greeted Martin and Goben at the scene, as they realized a horrific tragedy had occurred.

“It was very confusing,” Martin says. “My heart breaks for the families that have been displaced, the families that have lost their loved ones. Almost a year later, we’ve been witness to the houses being torn down, people moving. You lose track of time.”

The Knight Township Trustee’s Office sustained about $80,000 in damage. Insurance has covered the repairs, Martin says.

Martin was complimentary of the Evansville Fire Department and other responding agencies. Her office was uninhabitable after the explosion, but it still was able to work under a tent set up outside, thanks to the City-County Emergency Management Agency and its director, Cliff Weaver.

“That allowed us to continue to serve the community,” Martin says. “Because of that, we were able to get our budget in, which was due the following Monday.”

For information about the ongoing needs of those impacted by the Aug. 10, 2022, Weinbach Avenue house explosion, contact Catholic Charities Diocese of Evansville, or the American Red Cross Southwest Indiana Chapter.

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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