Mother of teen who died in explosion shares support from community, first responders and her faith
“This is a story full of hope, full of courage. … There is strength in humankind. There is love in humankind. There is courage and there’s triumph in the human race, and this is what you see in this story,” Julie Cheney told the Daily Herald as she recounted the events leading up to and following the death of her 19-year-old son, Eric Cheney, last Friday, the casualty of an explosion in the garage of the family’s home in Elk Ridge.
Support from the community
Before Julie Cheney arrived at her home around 9 or 10 Saturday morning, the day after the explosion at her home, over 50 people from her church ward and community had already showed up and completely cleaned out the garage, mowed her lawn, and were beginning to clean and repair the inside of her home.
When the community came that morning, they cleared out the garage and took down the rest of the Sheetrock damaged by the explosion. They removed the damaged roofing, bricks and garage door and took loads of debris and damaged items to the dump. After making sure the garage was as structurally sound as possible, they pressure washed and cleaned all of the items in the garage then repacked them inside of the garage.
Cheney explained how it felt when she came to her home that morning to see all of the work that had been done for her and her family without anyone asking. “I was able to come in and help and have it be safe and be home. I don’t even know how to explain. I don’t think there’s words for how that feels; it was so safe,” she said. “When there were so many unknowns, they gave me a solid, that I could stand in my own home and be there with the rest of my kids and look around and just see all the happy memories that I could think of with Eric. I could do that because I didn’t have to see or think about how to clean up.”
From 7 a.m. until about 1 p.m. that day, there were always at least 30 people at the home — and at one point as many as 50 — helping the Cheney family clean up, giving hugs and supporting them. Some stayed an hour, others a few hours, and some stayed all day. All of them helped in immeasurable ways, Cheney said.
While the garage will likely have to be torn down due to structural damage, Cheney said, the family is able to currently live in their house, which is where they want to be, even though they do not have electricity. The first night after Eric’s death, their neighbor gave them a place to sleep, and many others also offered a place in their home.
A GoFundMe account was created by a friend of the family to raise money for funeral and home repair expenses. “People are thinking about my needs before I can even think about my needs. It is so incredible,” Julie Cheney said. Over four days, more than 270 people have donated, amounting to almost $17,000 being raised for the family.
When the sun set on Saturday night, one of Cheney’s other sons went outside to see over 500 candles in their front yard and placed up and down the street. He called out his mom and family to see the candles placed there by people waiting outside of their home to celebrate Eric with a candlelight vigil. They offered hugs to his family and shared stories and pictures of Eric that they had found from over the years. Cheney said it was healing to be able to sit and hear stories and see pictures she never would have seen without people’s kindness to take the time to find them.
“So many hugs. People I don’t even know are stopping and hugging me, and it feels and is so nice, so good. And my children have just been greeted with so much love,” she said. On Monday, her daughter went to school for one class and as she dropped her off, Cheney said she saw many students in dresses and suits because the high school did a “dress for Eric day.” When she saw this, she thought, “We live in one of the most blessed places ever.”
“The thing I still remember most is his laughter,” Julie Cheney said of Eric. “He had kind of a dorky laugh, but we all love it. It’s so contagious.” She said people have been sharing videos of Eric laughing with her and she saves each one so she can remember his laugh.
“His laughter and his hugs, they are things I will miss the most,” Cheney said, her sobs and tears evident over the phone. “It just hurts. It’s hard to think about not hearing him laugh or having his hugs. But I don’t have to go through it by myself, (I have) all my kids and my husband. If I had to do this alone, I don’t think I could do it.”
Cheney recalls how Eric would come home after school and give her an eight-second hug. This happened every day, and if she was on the couch when he got home, he would come sit on her lap, even at 19. At 6 feet tall, Eric bested her by nearly a foot, “but he’d just come sit right in my lap, and he’d put his arm around me and put his chin on my head because I’m too short, so he’d put his chin on the top of my head. And he’d just sit on my lap for a while. He’s so funny. I’d be like, ‘OK, my legs are going numb, you have to get off,'” Cheney said, laughing.
Eric had his brotherly moments when he fought with his siblings and was human like everyone else, but “he is so loved, and he loved so hard,” his mom said, adding that he was always playfully wrestling someone or being on someone’s shoulders or just having fun, especially with her and his siblings.
Support from first responders
When the explosion happened, Cheney said there were immediately 10 people there trying to help, and within minutes there were over 50 people there to help however they could, physically and emotionally. She said they were all standing there with her and her family, offering water, asking if they were OK and asking if they needed to sit down.
“I didn’t even have a moment that I didn’t have someone there helping me. Lots of times, I didn’t even know the person, and then (there were) a lot of people I did know. But I was amazed by, to me, earthly angels that were there, so many good people,” she said.
Cheney had just finished cutting her daughter’s hair when they heard the explosion and ran out of the house. They thought they were the only ones home, but Eric was outside the front of the house near the garage.
Three young teenagers had been walking past their house on the other side of the road. They later recalled looking over and seeing Eric, then looking forward and continuing to walk — then the explosion happened. They looked back and the house was changed from the explosion, and Eric was gone.
Cheney explained the reports from those girls were one of the reasons she knew Eric was home and hurt in the explosion. The cause of the explosion is still under investigation, although no evidence suggests anything suspicious or criminal, according to Sgt. Spencer Cannon of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.
When the first responders arrived three minutes after the call came in at 4:19 p.m., they had to ensure the structure of the garage was safe for them to enter to recover Eric. Cheney said she was told by first responders he likely died immediately from the explosion before his body hit the ground, meaning he did not suffer, but the investigation of the cause of his death is still ongoing.
Tears once again filled her eyes and her voice broke as she recalled the moment first responders arrived at her home. “I remember I was like, ‘My son is in the garage. Please, please check,’ and I know I was asking them to do something that they couldn’t do because of risk of life to more people, but you can’t not ask, you know. It’s like, ‘Please, get my son.’ And they were so good to me to just try so hard to explain that they wanted to try to help him but that they have to be careful. It was so hard.”
In the midst of her suffering and pleading, the first responders were kind and gentle toward her as they explained why she needed to move away from the area, what was happening and why they could not go into the garage immediately.
“I can’t even imagine how that would be from their (the first responder’s) side with a mother pleading for her son and them knowing that they can’t and shouldn’t go in,” Cheney said. “I think that was just something that will be impressed upon my heart for so long, how hard that must have been for them and how kind they still acted towards me. And how gentle they still were with me even though I wanted so badly to know about my son right now.”
Support from her faith
Julie Cheney said Eric was always doing something, no matter the season or the weather. He would dance in the rain with his youth group from church and go snowboarding during the winter. He played tennis, volleyball and almost every other sport except for soccer and football. He loved hiking and motocross. She said he was never bored because he was always doing something.
“He’s just happy. He’s just ready to live every minute,” Cheney said. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m doing better with this, because I know he didn’t waste time. He lived every minute he was alive.”
Eric is the fourth out of six children in the Cheney family. When Eric was a baby, Julie Cheney was diagnosed with cancer. She explained, “When you go through something like that, it also changes the way you view life. This (Eric’s death) is another life-altering view. But that (having cancer) was a life-altering view for me, and I think at that time, I just learned to be with my kids more and treasure every minute. And I think his life would have been really different had I not had cancer when he was born. … Our relationship would have been different.”
She said because of this experience with cancer, she and Eric have an extra bond. “Maybe that’s just why he was my snuggle buddy. He just would hug me all the time. He was so good to me.”
Cheney is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which she said has brought her spiritual comfort through her belief that Eric was received into heaven by his grandmother, who passed away 13 years ago, and that he was immediately surrounded with love.
“I’m not sad for him. I mean, I could think about all the things that he’s going to miss, yes, but I don’t believe that there isn’t something even better that he’s going to have. So I don’t believe he’s missing out on things. I’m only sad for me, to be honest. I’m only sad for me and my family that we have to keep trying to figure out how to do this without him here with us.”
Her belief in a loving Heavenly Father and a heaven that is full of love is the reason why she said, “I’m not worried about him. I feel so much comfort, beyond what any person could do to give me. It’s a spiritual comfort, and that’s been from the very minute I saw his car and I realized he was in the garage. I immediately knew he was OK.” She explained that in that moment of realizing he was in the garage, she knew he was gone, but she knew he was OK because of her complete belief in God.
As she shared her spiritual experience and her testimony of Eric being in heaven, her countenance shifted to one of strength and hope for him, even in the midst of her grieving. “When I think about what he’s experiencing now, I’m strong,” she said. “When I think about what I’m going to experience without him, I break.”
She explained her reason for sharing Eric’s story and the story of the love they have been shown is to give back after her family has received so much strength from others. She hopes Eric’s story “gives people hope and encouragement in a world that right now seems not so hopeful.”
The funeral service will be held next Tuesday, with details still being discussed. The family’s ward has been providing them dinner each night and will continue to do so after the funeral, Cheney said. She added that those in the ward who have lost children or other loved ones have been helping her navigate planning a funeral and have been a blessing to her and her family.