Wednesday, October 2, 1996
Riverside blast didn't sink neighbors' faith

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The storage tanks sit on the river's lip like so many beer cans from a giant's six-pack.

They hold the fuels of our age, gasoline, oil, the fixings for paint and the makings for disaster.

''See that big white tank? Next to the one with '27' painted on it? That's the tank that blew up.''

Jakob Ruprich says this as he points from his front porch, past his lawn goose wearing a Halloween witch's hat, across River Road, over a set of railroad tracks and into a field of storage tanks owned by Ashland Petroleum.

A week ago today, the tank next to No. 27 blew its top. The resulting fire punched holes in the tank's lid and blackened its white wall.

It also threatened to contaminate the air with the potentially hazardous fumes of toluene, the stuff in paint thinner, nail polish and cigarette smoke.

No go

The streets nearest the fire were evacuated. Cops went door to door telling people to leave their homes. They could wait down the street in a row of Metro buses.

They left. Grudgingly.

Many, like Joyce Steinmetz, never sat in the buses. She has family down the street. So, she went to their house. But she would have rather stayed home. The life-long Riversider had two reasons.

Reason One: Her car.

''I was washing my car when that tank blew. I had just put soap on it. I didn't want the suds to dry on my car.''

The finish on her red, 1988 Buick is like new. ''I want to keep it that way.''

Reason Two: Experience.

''This explosion wasn't as bad as others we've had,'' she notes. She remembers one that shook her frame house and the hillside where it stands, a block above River Road.

''I just heard this one,'' she says. ''I didn't feel it.''

Staying put

A week after the blast, I'd like to say the neighborhood is back to normal. It is and it isn't.

People have resumed their daily routines. Retirees are picking late-season tomatoes from their side-yard patches. School kids stop and sniff the honey-scented sweet alyssum whose white flowers bloom along the sidewalks.

Everyone's back to dodging River Road's heavy traffic. Still, they wonder about those tanks across the street.

They say they're not scared. They're just concerned.

Jakob Ruprich took the explosion in stride. He was at work. He wife was at home. When the tank blew, she went to her sister-in-law's house in Harrison.

''We've done it before,'' he says. ''We'll do it again.''

He admits he wonders ''just what is in those tanks.'' But, he's not budging. His house is paid for. His wife grew up just two doors down the road. And, he has rooms with a view.

''I like to tell people, if anything moves in this country, it goes by my house. By the road. By the train tracks. By the river or by those planes flying overhead.''

He likes to tell his wife, Ashland is a good neighbor. ''I'm sure,'' he says, ''they would let us know beforehand if something bad was going to happen at one of those tanks.''

Gene O'Brien is not so sure. His house is across the street from the tank that burned. The last time Ashland painted its storage facility, the wind shifted and he wound up with a speckled car.

''No one warned us,'' he says. ''And, that was just paint.''

Even with this latest explosion, he refuses to move.

''This,'' he says with a sweep of his hand toward his house, his tomato patch and a front-yard flower garden of snapdragons and spider plants, ''is home.''

This stretch of River Road is what they used to call a real neighborhood. It's where people heed the message on the parish church's roadside sign: ''Talk with your neighbors, not about them.''

Walking into his back yard, a carpet of green grass bordered by elm trees, Gene O'Brien explains how a strong neighborhood survives.

''My wife has cousins up and down the street. Everyone's related. Nobody's leaving.

''That's why, when the street was evacuated and we had to walk to those Metro buses, practically nobody got on.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.