The Empty Lot on Cokeland South

February 19, 2017

Rich has written about a fascinating, tragic story from 1978, when Maryland City was literally rocked by an explosion in the wee hours of February 1st. The mystery deepened when firefighters discovered the home’s occupant dead in the front yard—of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. What happened at 355 Cokeland South that morning, that led to it being an empty lot for more than half a decade?

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Laurel real estate agents may periodically stumble across what appears to be a typo on the books in the sprawling neighborhood of Maryland City, just off Route 198. In the sea of single family houses built in the early 1960s, there’s one on Cokeland South that stands out on paper, if not in person. As the home’s Zillow.com profile indicates, “355 Cokeland S, Laurel, MD is a single family home that contains 1,120 sq ft and was built in 1984.”

Wait. 1984?

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The houses directly beside it were built in 1963. In fact, all of the other houses on Cokeland South and the surrounding streets were built in 1963. So that has to be a mistake, right?

Not according to those who lived in the neighborhood in the late 1970s and early 80s—particularly the kids who enjoyed playing on what they called, simply, “The Empty Lot”. And aerial photos from 1980 do indeed show an empty lot on the site:

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However, aerial photos from 1964 clearly reveal a house there at that time:

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So what happened here? It’s certainly not unusual for homeowners to completely rebuild—whether it’s the result of a devastating fire, flood, or other natural disaster. Or, simply by aesthetic choice—sometimes, people decide to make significant changes to their property that requires tearing it down and rebuilding something new.

But why would the house at 355 Cokeland South disappear, and its lot sit completely vacant for several years?

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This past December, I received an email from Lost Laurel follower Werter Arrington. He knew the basic answer to this question; because as a child, his family lived directly across the street at 350 Cokeland South. And in the early morning hours of February 1, 1978, he witnessed the aftermath of a violent explosion that destroyed his neighbors’ home.

But this wasn’t a horrific accident or freak occurrence, as Maryland City firefighters and Anne Arundel County Police first responders soon determined. The occupant of the house, Frank Stanley Kotra, was found dead in the front yard—of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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Front page of the Laurel News Leader, February 9, 1978 edition

Werter remembered his parents trying to lend aid—covering the man in a blanket and talking to him until help arrived, knowing that it was likely far too late. It was. Firefighters converging on the blaze had quite a task on their hands that morning: multiple 55-gallon drums of cleaning supplies had become involved in the fire that originated in the basement, prohibiting them from making any attempt to attack the fire from inside—or what was left of the inside.

And in what must have been a particularly macabre scene, firefighters realized they had inadvertently been kneeling on the victim’s body while operating a hose line at the front of the house. By that point, Kotra’s body had become partially covered by debris; and worse, his face and head had become frozen to the ground.

“He was frozen to the sidewalk and had to be chipped from the ice before they could remove his body.” —Maryland City Fireman Dave Smallwood

Maryland State Police reported that the cause of the fire was “ignition of a flammable liquid, possibly gasoline,” and the State Medical Examiner officially ruled the death of the 48-year-old retired military man a suicide.

There’s no way of knowing exactly what transpired at 355 Cokeland South that morning, but it stemmed from a domestic incident. Most theories have Kotra’s wife, Hannelore, planning to leave the marriage and take their children—leaving Frank despondent. Some suggest that he intended to kill everyone in the home. (Firefighters reported that he had blocked egress with furniture). But others claim that the family was safely away with relatives, and that Kotra himself had even made arrangements for his children to spend the night with a neighbor. At any rate, a distraught Frank Kotra was fortunately home alone at 4:45 AM on February 1, 1978, when he decided to set a fire in his basement—likely knowing that it would trigger a massive explosion—and then walk to the front yard, put a gun to his head, and pull the trigger.

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Frank Stanley Kotra was born on February 14, 1929 in Tarnow, Poland to Karol Kotra and Stefania Siedlik.

In 1955, he became an American citizen residing in Chicago; and the following year, he married Hannelore in Manheim, Germany. The U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and his wife spent time in Fort Smith, Arkansas before moving to Maryland City.

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Norther District, Illinois Naturalization Index for Frank Kotra, 1955
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Fort Smith, Arkansas City Directory, 1959.

After retiring from the Army, Kotra sold Amway products—which might explain the unusually large volume of cleaning products in his basement, further fueling the fire.

Kotra was just two weeks shy of his 49th birthday when he took his life, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on February 3rd. His headstone revealed another intriguing fact about his short, troubled life—he’d served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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Kotra’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery: Section 67, Site 871.

Little was known about post-traumatic stress disorder during Frank Kotra’s lifetime. In fact, the term “PTSD” didn’t first appear in the psychiatric lexicon until 1980. Could that have potentially played some role in this tragedy?

The house sitting at 355 Cokeland South today was indeed newly built in 1984, and bears no scars from February 1, 1978. Nor would you guess that the site had been an empty lot for more than half a decade after an explosion rocked the community. It looks very much like the other houses on the street and surrounding blocks throughout Maryland City—peaceful. Let’s hope that Frank Kotra found peace, and that his family, friends, and neighbors who lived through this event nearly 40 years ago have found peace, as well.

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My thanks to Werter Arrington, John Floyd, Maryland City firefighter Dave Smallwood, MCVFD Chief Rayburn Smallwood, and retired AAFD Battalion Chief Joe Ross for their recollections.