Two Woodbury senior citizens lost their home and they're lucky to be alive after the propane tank on their grill exploded on the deck last Wednesday. 

Robert Hamer and his wife, Katherine, escaped via the front door of their home in the 5700 block of Fawn Trail Circle, spending the night at a neighbor's house after a shocking accident on their backyard deck turned the $340,000 home into an inferno. 

Like the rest of the Edgewood Estates neighborhood, Hamer -  who was cooking on the grill but inside his house - heard a pop when the pressure release valve on the tank blew and the 20-pound cylinder ruptured and then jettisoned onto the woodsy hillside behind the Hamers' home. Smoke billowed from his malfunctioning gas grill, and Hamer momentarily tried - to no avail - to throw water on the fire. 

Uninjured, the Hamers left without their cell phones or any other personal property, Woodbury Fire Commander John Wallgren said. "You know the expression we got out of the house with just the shirt on our back."

The home and its contents were a total loss, Wallgren said, including "two cars plus a lifetime of valued items."

ALL CALL

Initially, firefighters were called at 4:33 p.m. May 27.

An all-call dispatch to Woodbury firefighters was issued, and due to the obvious and immediate severity of the fire, mutual aid for tanker trucks was requested.

When the first firefighter arrived on scene one minute after the explosion because his home is nearby, Hamer stood in front of the house, too close to the fire, Wallgren said. "He was in shock. He was just frozen."

Within seven or eight minutes, 11 firefighters had arrived and formed teams at the home on Woodbury's southernmost border with Cottage Grove, but the maintenance-free deck was already "a ball of fire," Wallgren said. Such decking is often made of petroleum-based material, which is highly flammable. It burns quicker than wood. And the cedar walls of the 2,065-square-foot 1979 home quickly succumbed to the blaze.

"It ran through it like it was no tomorrow," Wallgren said.

As usual, Woodbury Public Safety collectedly launched an offensive attack on the flames, sending teams of firefighters through the back and front doors. But the ceiling was falling in the back of the house, and Wallgren said "they ran into a wall of fire." The floor was falling in the front of the house. Firefighters soon pulled out and resorted to defensive tactics.

"It wasn't safe for any staff to go inside the building," Wallgren said. "We're not going to lose firefighters falling through the floor because we're aggressive. We are an aggressive department, but we do it safely. We have a plan and we train on this. We all know our job."

In fact, Wallgren added, they follow a script. Firefighters make sure the trucks arrive quickly and safely, remain calm and conduct their part of the firefighting operation.

"We know what we need to do and we do it," Wallgren said.

Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo, Lower St. Croix Valley, Newport, St. Paul Park and Maplewood firefighters assisted, and as they arrived, they could see the black smoke from the intersection of interstates 94 and 494.

One tree was taken down to make room for the ladder truck to reach and "get the big water on it," Wallgren said. 

The Hamers' backyard is wooded, with the deck and little grass. Pouring 1,200 gallons a minute on the blaze gets the ground wet. Firefighters brought hoses to the peak of the hill, but it was dangerously slippery, Wallgren said.

The 100-foot-long ladder stretched through the trees, above a muddy hillside.

PREVENTING THE WORST

Fairly far from other nearby houses in the neighborhood, the trees were the only exposure to the fire. Firefighters prevented hot embers from falling on surrounding trees, and fortunately, the woods were damp from previously wet weather. 

A water-shuttling operation worked great, feeding Woodbury's tanker trucks, Wallgren said. One of the department's two new rescue trucks served as the primary truck in the operation.

After a while, the homeowners' family arrived and Wallgren and other firefighters brought them close to the fire for "a period of mourning, if you will," Wallgren said. "I was with them. They are wonderful people."

They knew nothing would be recovered. Only the walls of the house are standing. Firefighters put up caution tape and asked the family not to enter the building until innsurance companies conducted their damage estimates.

Firefighters took pictures of the wreckage and conducted interviews, per protocol. A report on the fire will be completed after insurance companies finalize their work.

The scene was cleared at about 9:30 p.m., but one fire truck remained stationed at the house, due to what Wallgren called a "pancake effect" that occurred when the first level of the home collapsed and fallen ceilings stacked on fallen floors. A fire crew stayed the night to monitor hot spots in the house.

Wallgren said that firefighters often reflect on raging fires and wonder if there's anything that could've been done to avoid a total loss. They remember fatalities, as recently as March 27 at Woodbury Senior Living, and they value the lives of the victims, Wallgren said. 

"We could lay our heads on our pillows at night knowing that we did our job," Wallgren said.

Michelle Leonard contributed to this story.

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