Metro-East News

Fire chief says man is lucky to be alive after Columbia home explodes, burns

Firefighters say the resident of a home that exploded and burned early Friday morning is lucky to be alive.

The Columbia Fire Department was called to the 100 block of Lookout Drive, near the interchange of Illinois 158 and Illinois 3 on the east side of the town, at 7:38 a.m. The two-story house there was fully engulfed in flames following an explosion in its basement.

Dupo and Millstadt fire departments provided mutual aid and were still fighting flames after 10 a.m.

The house’s upper levels have collapsed and its right side is in the basement. Its only occupant at the time, a man, crawled out of the burning house shortly after igniting his furnace for the first time this season.

Columbia Fire Chief Mike Roediger said the resident likely survived only because the furnace was fueled by the liquid propane tank and not a natural gas utility. Liquid propane is heavier than breathable air and natural gas, which contained the explosion to the lower level of the house, the chief said.

“Gas rises, LP settles so it stayed in the basement,” Roediger said. “If it had been natural gas, it would have caused a lot more damage. He was very lucky to get out of there.”

Resident is OK

Brent Dill, who says he has lived across the street for six years, was getting his kids ready for school when he heard the explosion.

“I thought the kids jumped off of something and I yelled out ‘what did you guys do?’” he said. “My daughter said ‘what was that?’ I went outside and saw the house and just said ‘holy (expletive).’ I called out for my neighbor ... I had to see him and know that he was safe.

“He came to me. He was trying to get the fire department and I told him I’d handle it. Obviously, everybody else was calling, too.”

There were several small explosions that Roediger described as “pops,” which apparently caused by two boxes of ammunition stored inside the basement of the house.

Dill said his neighbor disappeared momentarily, likely to turn off the line that connects the propane tank at the back of his property to the house.

“I’m just happy he’s OK,” Dill said. “It’s crazy coming home last night and everything is fine, then you get up, start your daily routine to get your kids ready, and now everything he’s had for years is gone. It’s crazy, but that’s how life is. It sucks.”

Don’t walk away from furnace

Roediger cautioned from the scene that the cause of the explosion remains under investigation. Firefighters and utility crews will remain on the scene “at least a couple hours” longer to control hot spots and to dig through the rubble in the basement to confirm the explosion’s origin, he said.

“If it’s the first time your turning on your furnace, don’t walk away after you do. If you are uncomfortable about something, call your local fire department or gas company — that’s what we’re here for,” Roediger said.

Bob Schlegel, who lives on Hill Top Drive near the burning house, was working in his garage when he heard a sound “like a bomb going off.” He said he walked down the street to investigate, noting other neighbors watching either from their yards or the roadway.

He credited the fire departments for their quick response.

“It was gone right away,” Schlegel said. “I heard neighbors talk that the man got out and gave him immediate relief. It’s sad to see that house go ... but I’m just glad he’s OK.

“(The firefighters) are nothing but professional and a great group of guys. We feel safe living here with that fire department.”

Carolyn P. Smith has worked for the Belleville News-Democrat for 18 years and currently covers breaking news in the Metro-East. She graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Missouri at Columbia and says news is in her DNA.
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