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Survivors of Salem propane explosion are rebuilding lives

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SALEM -- Chelsey Wilcox has a spotty memory of that Wednesday afternoon in July when everything changed.

There was an unusual odor in the basement of the home on Route 29, but the source could not be determined. She remembered the frantic call for everyone to get out of the house. She was headed for the front door when the blast occurred.

"I felt the impact when I hit the ground," the 15-year-old recalled.

The girl's dad, Daniel Wilcox, was just outside the front door of the home, on his way back inside to get his daughter.

"Everything came out of the sky," he said, as he recalled pushing back into the fractured structure and seeing resident Steven McComsey lifting a fallen piece of plywood off of Chelsey.

"That's when me and her locked eyes. She was screaming, hysterical, and her leg was all messed up. That picture is still in my mind," he whispered. "It was pretty horrifying. I tried calming her down. I told her she was OK. I wanted to make sure that she thought she was OK."

Investigators later said a spark from a pressure switch on a home water system was believed to have ignited propane that had accumulated in the basement of the home. The resulting blast killed six people and put five others in the hospital.

Chelsey was admitted to the Burn Center at Westchester Medical Center where she underwent multiple surgical procedures over the following eight weeks.

"My foot is still three times the size that it's supposed to be," she said.

A stack of 10th-grade science textbooks was piled on the living room table next to her in the Salem home she and her father share as she spoke. Chelsey receives tutoring from 3 to 5 p.m. every day, exercises twice daily and has regular doctor visits since she returned home on Sept. 18.

She gets along in a wheelchair, which is temporary. After the swelling in her leg subsides, she will begin therapy - that could take up to two years - to get range of motion back in her right leg.

Chelsey suffered two pelvic fractures and a shattered hip as a result of the explosion, in addition to multiple broken bones in her leg that required two vein bypass surgeries to keep blood flowing. Transplanted skin tissue has been grafter along half of her right arm and 90 percent of her left arm.

Wilcox said he and his daughter are taking life one day at a time.

"We both have our moments, but we have to stay positive," he said. "It's the only way we can be. I don't worry too much about things. My daughter is alive and I almost lost her."

Wilcox stayed at the Ronald McDonald House at the Westchester medical campus for most of Chelsey's eight-week hospital stay.

"I stayed to give my daughter the support she needs, to keep fighting, that she had some stuff to keep fighting for," he said. "So every day I would sit next to her and tell her, ‘Keep fighting; keep fighting.' "

Wilcox said he is grateful to everyone in the community who supported the family over the past three months by hosting fundraisers and helping to maintain the family's Salem home.

Now that they're back, there is much work to do. Wilcox is a former log home builder who was disabled by an accident at a building site. The family is on a fixed income. Still, they will find a way, he said.

The home is being converted from gas to electric heat because, following the explosion, Wilcox refuses to have propane in the house, he said. And he is working with a financial adviser at the medical center to sort out the bills, which he said are astounding.

The tally includes $1,200 for an ambulance to Albany and $34,000 for a medical helicopter from Albany to Westchester. The doctor bills alone total more than $100,000, and hospital costs are $1.2 million, he said.

The incident has had a profound impact on their lives.

"You could go to bed being mad at somebody. And then the next morning, they're not there. Knowing that - that's what's changed," he said.

Wilcox has also returned to college and is taking online courses to earn his bachelor's degree.

Chelsey has begun to resolve deep issues with her mom, who does not live with the family and whom she seldom has had communication with in the past.

"I finally got my closure from my mom," she said. "She has had her problems. She apologized for everything that she put me through. I talk to her every other day now, and there's no more hatred there."

Chelsey is returning to the medical center in Westchester this weekend to speak to and motivate children being hospitalized there. She said the care and attention she received has inspired her to focus on her future.

"I want to go into the BOCES program for nursing, and I want to go to college to become an RN," she said. "Before this all happened, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but after being in the hospital, I know. It's like being reborn."

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