Firefighting, Legal

Indianapolis Firefighters Give Emotional Testimony About Home Explosion

Veteran firefighters became emotional Tuesday when describing to jurors the devastation they saw when a 2012 explosion demolished an Indianapolis home and damaged others, including one where fire crews saw a man trapped inside a basement but couldn’t save him, reports The Associated Press.

Battalion Chief Mark Culver said John “Dion” Longworth was yelling for firefighters to get him out. An emotional Culver paused for 20 seconds while testifying about the scene.

“Our guys were as close as they could get. The heat backed us off,” Culver, a 31-year veteran of the department, told jurors.

He said one firefighter was next to Longworth, but fire swept across debris that had been left on the ground from the explosion.

“The fire just marched across so fast,” Culver said.

Longworth, 34, and his wife, Jennifer, 36, who was on the house’s second floor, died in the blaze that started when the house next door exploded. Authorities allege the explosion was a scheme of 46-year-old Mark Leonard, his then-girlfriend, Monserrate Shirley, and his half brother, Bob Leonard, to collect $300,000 in insurance. They say they filled the house with natural gas and used a device to cause the explosion.

Mark Leonard’s public defender, Diane Black, said during her opening statement Monday that it was supposed to be a small fire and described the explosion as “a stupid and selfish insurance fraud that went horribly wrong.”

Lt. Russell Futrell testified that the sound of the blast woke him at a nearby fire station and left him wondering whether a plane had crashed. When he arrived at the Longworth home, he walked a few steps in and called inside and didn’t hear anyone.

“I didn’t know at that time people were inside,” said Futrell, who also became emotional while on the witness stand. “If I had known that, I would have risked everything to go in there.”

Prosecutors played a tape of radio traffic during the first moments of firefighters getting to the scene.

“Give us water as soon as you can so we can get people out of this house,” one firefighter said.

Futrell and neighborhood residents said people were walking around in a daze moments after the explosion occurred and some people were trapped in their homes because the blast had damaged their doors.

Frank Hiatt said he was walking out of his garage shortly after 11 p.m. that night when he was knocked back off his feet. He said he went running toward the blast and expected to hear children crying, people screaming and dogs barking. Instead, he heard nothing.

“It kind of gave me the impression I was standing in death,” he said.

Many of the 17 people who testified Tuesday talked about what they were doing at the time of the explosion, and neighborhood residents described the damage it did to their homes. Defense lawyers didn’t cross-examine many of the witnesses.

More than 270 people called 911 that night to report hearing something. Some of the calls were played for jurors. Some thought a plane had crashed. Others thought a vehicle had struck their home.

“I heard a big noise. What’s going on here?” one female caller said. “I’m scared and I live alone. What do I need to do?”

“I’ve heard cars blow up. I’ve heard dynamite blow up. But I never heard anything like that,” another caller said.

The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.