Two veteran linemen in Minnesota thought they were on a routine service call earlier this month. Until a nearby house exploded.
Crew chief Mike Gustafson and Jim Yrjanson had wrapped up replacement of a neutral ground ripped down during logging operations, still common in the lush forests around north-central Minnesota.
“We were folding the truck up and pulling in the rigging on the edge of a member’s yard,” said Gustafson, a 32-year veteran of Grand Rapids-based Lake Country Power. “That’s when the house blew up.”
The May 16 explosion knocked out the windows of the bucket truck and lifted the cinderblock home off its foundation.
Gustafson got into the truck cab and connected with his dispatch unit to call 911. Drawing on his experience as a former volunteer firefighter, Yrjanson raced to see if anyone was inside the house. Fighting through the smoke, he arrived at the front porch and started yelling,
Pam Jepson answered. She had just put out food for her dog and cat and wanted to warm up on a chilly morning.
“I turned up the thermostat,” said Jepson. “I walked about eight steps, then I was in the air.”
She was on her knees in a smoke-filled house when she saw Yrjanson picking his way through debris blown into what had been the front hallway.
“Come on, you gotta get out right now,” Yrjanson told Jepson.
With insulation falling from the exposed rafters, Yrjanson helped her outside to safety.
As a dazed Jepson sat recovering on a neighbor’s front lawn, flames began spreading, and her dog ran out of the house. A few moments later, she saw her cat scramble across the lawn.
“There really wasn’t much we could do,” said Yrjanson. “Within a few minutes, the house was fully engulfed in flames.”
Firefighters from the Grand Rapids Volunteer Fire Department arrived within 15 minutes as the flames spread to a detached garage. They were able to salvage three motorcycles and a 1960s-era Chevrolet. Fire marshals are still determining the cause of the incident.
“Firefighters knew the house was gone, but they hit the ground running to help save the vehicles,” said Yrjanson, who has been a lineman for 30 years. “There was slight damage to them, but they did a great job.”
Gustafson agreed. During his co-op career, he’s pitched in on several fires, disconnecting utilities at the scene so firefighters could battle blazes with less risk of injury from electricity or gas explosions.
“Firefighters did as much as they could to help her salvage some of the family’s belongings,” said Gustafson. “Two Itasca County sheriff’s deputies also showed up to help.”
Both linemen agreed the incident was a reminder of their roles as first-responders.
“It’s part of the safety training we get at the co-op,” said Yrjanson.
While the two worked through the remainder of the day, word of their heroics spread quickly around the Lake Country Power headquarters.
“Duty often calls in different ways, and Mike and Jim didn’t hesitate to help when help was needed,” said Greg Randa, Lake Country Power general manager.
“The guys will tell you it’s all in a day’s work, but this is more than that. We’re proud of their response in the midst of a dangerous situation,” Randa added. “Clear-thinking, cool heads and strong training are essential in emergency response, and that was clearly the case here.”
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.