Christmas Explosion Rocked Frankford in 1995

That Winter in Frankford: An Historical Retrospective of 1995-96

Thomas and Hazel Hummel have lived in Frankford for over 29 years, and you would be hard pressed to find better neighbors. They have been witnesses to the history of the community for better and for worst. The fact is, they have helped shape this community in a variety of ways and all good. Hazel’s porch and garden are always lovely, always distinctive, and always picturesque. She is that unmistakable figure out and about watering, clipping, and picking up trash. At times, she is aided by her grand children, nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grandnephews. She is a busy woman and prefers it that way. She has raised 10 children and cares for a nephew who lives in the area. Her husband Thomas does not let grass grow under his feet either. He is nearly always working on a do-it-yourself home project and still holds down a job. Tom is the cofounder of the triangular 200’x 200’x 200 foot garden in Frankford that was formerly a vacant lot after the Bell Telephone building exploded late in the winter of 1995. These 2, Thomas and Hazel Hummel, nearly septuagenarians, are giants. They are the golden anchors of the Frankford community. However, this is an historical account which tells of a catastrophe to which Tom and Hazel had a front row seat and lived to tell the story.

It was the year of 1995 the winter of the great blizzard. Thirty one inches of snow would hit the Philadelphia later in the season. The Hummel’s were all settled down on a cold winter night of December 29, 1995. Their 5 children had settled hours earlier and now Tom and Hazel slumbered peacefully. The first explosion rocked their home at 3:15 am, but that was the small one. The next was the Big bang. It shattered every window in the area for blocks around and sent huge sections of brick, mortar, and wood in all directions. In fact a 4 inch by 4 inch plank rocketed through their neighbors front window, tore through the house, and exited the rear. Front porches were destroyed and large pieces of rock and glass blasted into homes slamming into walls and destroying all things in the path. Soon the Bell Telephone building was totally engulfed in flames and sirens wailed.

Little Penney Hummel, the youngest of their girls, groaned. She had not heard the blasts. “Mom, she asked, Why are you waking us up so early?” Hazel darted from room to room gathering her children and what necessities she could find. The fire department immediately evacuated the area, and with their 5 children in tow the Hummel’s were raced off to their son’s home. Their car, along with several others on the block, had been crushed by falling walls. It would be a couple of hours before the fierce fire was brought under control.

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Thomas and Hazel Hummel were away from their home for 2 weeks. When they did return the damage was widespread. Tom recounted that it looked like Beruit after a jihad. Thomas and the neighbors began the cleanup, but Hazel took the youngest children on a Pocono mountain vacation for a week while the older ones stayed to help Tom. Reconstruction began and slowly but surely the people of this community (along with holding down full time jobs) reclaimed their homes. The neighborhood was changed though. A huge pile of rubble remained on the site, and finally after a full investigation the cause was determined. There had been a gas leak in the old Bell Telephone Building on Penn at Folkrod and Oxford. Remarkably, there were no casualties and an amazing community action, graced with love and genuine concern for their fellowmen, sprung up during the reconstruction. Yes, this community in Frankford led by Thomas Hummel and others reclaimed their homes.

The lot excavation was barely underway when early in the new year Mother Nature surprised the east coast with an extreme blizzard. Thirty-one inches of snow fell that weekend in January, 1996 and many cities along the eastern seaboard were storm-locked for weeks. But spring finally came and Frankford went back to work. The citizens of this community were on a mission and an explosion and blizzard would not hold them down.

Then there was the problem of the gaping hole in the earth. The Bell Telephone building footprint would later be filled, but what should be done with the open space that remained? By degrees, Tom, Roy and members of Philadelphia Horticulture Society came up with a plan. It would be a green-space, a city park. The beautiful garden remains there to this day as do Tom, Hazel, Roy, Angel and other stalwart members of this community. They are testaments to civic pride and hard work. And considering the slow, but perceptible degradation of this section of Frankford, these folk did not take the easy way out. They did not take to flight, no they stayed and continue to make positive contributions to this community.

Tom and Hazel’s children are all grown now and raising their families. They are all productive and appreciated members in their own communities. And the reason is simple. They have had great parenting. They were raised well. They were taught to be good neighbors, to realize the importance of community and hard-work. Oh…. for a thousand Tom and Hazels. That would be just great! Yes, good neighbors and good parents are what this community needs. In fact, it’s what every community needs.

Alexander Houston

All photos courtesy of Tom and Hazel Hummel