A fiery explosion that rocked Maryville Wednesday afternoon was unlike anything that two cops say they’ve seen in their law enforcement careers.
Maryville Officer Justin Krausz was one of the first to arrive on the scene. He said he saw “a big ball of flame, fire in the sky” near the intersection of Illinois 159 and 162.
“Once I got down there, I noticed a dark, shadowy figure coming out of the fire. He walked a few yards and collapsed,” Krausz said. The man was walking east in the grass off Illinois 162.
Krausz said he exited his squad car and went to go help the man, construction worker John Doug Behme of Worden.
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“Smoke was coming off him, but he was not on fire,” Krausz said.
Behme was able to walk and talk, and even got into the ambulance on his own, which Krausz said surprised him, given the extent of his injuries.
Behme was taken to Anderson Hospital in Maryville and then transferred to the burn unit of Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, where he was listed in critical condition on Thursday. However, Krausz said a friend of Behme came by the station Thursday, and told him Behme is expected to survive. Behme suffered third-degree burns, Krausz said, but his lungs were healthy, which also surprised him, given the extent of the smoke and the fumes at the site.
“We were able to remove him from the fire, closer to the squad car to start treating any type of injuries he had from the fire,” Krausz said Thursday.
Once I got down there, I noticed a dark, shadowy figure coming out of the fire. He walked a few yards and collapsed.
Maryville Officer Justin Krausz
Maryville Sgt. Brandon Ponce heard the call over the radio and arrived shortly after Krausz. He could see the fire soaring over the treetops — “a huge sheeting plume of fire” — and got on the radio, asking the dispatchers to “get everybody you can get.” Within five minutes, he said, “more resources than I could have imagined” showed up at the scene.
Ponce helped Krausz get Behme to safety.
“When we pulled him back to where our patrol cars were at, we laid him down,” Ponce said. “He had made a comment to Officer Krausz about possibly having more people up there, so once we realized this guy was conscious, we then went back up to where the fire was to see if there was anyone else that possibly needed help.”
We got the guy up on his feet and, amazingly enough, he was able to walk with us.
Maryville Sgt. Brandon Ponce
Ponce said the heat was “intense.”
“We got pretty close, but we couldn’t get all the way up there because it was just way too intense. There were vehicles that were catching fire. Gas tanks and tires were blowing up,” Ponce said. They were like “popping sounds,” he said.
“We tried to do as much as we could to stop some bleeding to his hands,” Ponce said, adding that by that time, more agencies started showing up, including officers from Glen Carbon, Troy and State Police. Ponce said he was “100 percent shocked” to see the man get into the ambulance himself.
We tried to do as much as we could to stop some bleeding to his hands.
Maryville Sgt. Brandon Ponce
Krausz has been with Maryville Police Department for more than four years; Ponce has been there for 10 years. Neither recalls a more intense situation in their experiences as Maryville officers.
“It was just so overwhelming. My first instinct was to aid the guy that had collapsed,” Krausz said. “You don’t really think about yourself.”
Ponce said he didn’t necessarily agree with those calling them heroes.
“We acted,” he said. “We knew someone needed help, and that’s what we’re here for.”
Still, it was not the kind of duty they’re used to in a quiet town like Maryville.
“Bad things happen everywhere,” Ponce said, but it’s only after the event that they both stood back and thought, “Did that just really happen?”
At least one resident witnessed the worker coming from the flames and the officers’ quick rescue.
Jim Harrison, a longtime Maryville resident, said he was doing some office work at his Nottingham Estates home when the explosion happened about 1:45 p.m. He said the power flickered and he saw flames shooting up, far behind his home. Harrison said he went to check it out and drove to the front of the neighborhood. That’s when he started capturing footage on his phone.
Harrison’s video shows a person walking away from the flames. The person is then seen collapsing onto his knees in the grass. Harrison recounts a Maryville Police officer rushing toward the individual to help.
“I dropped my phone and started running toward him when I saw the first officer on the scene, Officer Krausz of the Maryville Police Department,” Harrison said. “He put his car in park, radioed it in and ran directly toward him, and picked him up and carried him a distance from the flames, then other rescue crews started arriving.”
As of Thursday afternoon, traffic was moving smoothly, but the smell of smoke lingered over the residential neighborhood along that stretch of Route 162. Utility workers were on the scene, examining the excavation where the explosion took place. The burned-out shells of the cars and construction vehicles that were destroyed in the fire remained behind yellow emergency tape alongside the road.
Aaron Priddy of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed that as is standard with any workplace accident involving an injury, OSHA has opened an investigation into the accident to evaluate whether any violations of established safety regulations or precautions took place.
Priddy said it was too early to say exactly what happened, but OSHA investigators were examining the scene as soon as it was released by the fire department. While OSHA technically has six months to determine the cause or any culpability of an accident, he said they would try to finalize the investigation within about 30 days.