Clara City, Minn., house blows up; she's saved by fridge

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2011 - 9:36 AM

Janice Harms was in the kitchen when her Clara City house blew up. The refrigerator deflected debris.

The call of nature may have saved Janice Harms' life -- that and the sturdy Frigidaire that stood in her farmhouse kitchen in Clara City.

About 3 a.m. last Saturday, her century-old house in southwestern Minnesota was demolished by an explosion. But Harms, who had climbed out of bed for a trip to the bathroom, happened to be standing next to the refrigerator when the roof caved in.

"That's what kept me from getting flattened," she told reporters Tuesday at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, where she's recovering.

Sheltered by the appliance, Harms, the only person in the house at the time, was found in a small gap beneath the rubble.

"If she had been 10 feet away from that ... she would have been dead," said Chippewa County Sheriff Stacy Tufto, who returned to the scene later that day to survey the damage. "During the daylight, it was more devastating and more impressive that she had survived this."

Harms, who is 65, escaped with a broken wrist, a crushed thumb and some cuts and bruises.

"I'm pretty good," she said Tuesday, stoic but smiling in a hospital wheelchair. "Only a little traumatized."

Officials suspect a gas leak may have caused the explosion. But Harms insists she didn't smell gas when she woke in the pre-dawn darkness in the two-story house, built by her grandfather, where she has lived all her life.

On her way back to bed, she said, she noticed a light on in the kitchen and was reaching for the switch when the house "went bang."

"I started praying right away, 'Lord help me,'" she said.

As the ceiling collapsed, the refrigerator deflected just enough of the falling debris to create a protective space, 1 to 2 feet wide, where she hit the floor.

Harms said she was knocked out for "a while." When she awoke, she remembers glimpsing an ambulance and the rescue squad through gaps in the rubble.

"They were talking, saying 'Where are you, where are you?'" she said. "I said: 'Over here!'"

Fire Chief Troy Sweep told the West Central Tribune: "We weren't expecting to find anybody in the house that was alive."

Rescue crews brought in a backhoe to help free her. She thinks she was trapped for about 25 minutes; others say it was more than an hour.

'This can't be'

Dr. Mark Ahrendt was the trauma surgeon on call when Harms arrived at North Memorial by air transport. He had been warned that the incoming patient had survived a house explosion, and was dumbfounded to find her awake and talking. Her only complaint: some pain in her arm.

In the meantime, Harms, who works in a restaurant, was asking the E.R. staff to call her coworkers to let them know she was going to miss her next shift.

"I said, 'This can't be a lady who survived when a house exploded,'" Ahrendt recalled.

Her most serious injury was the smashed thumb. At first, doctors feared she might lose it; but so far they've succeeded in treating it with a combination of modern and ancient medicine.

Because of damage to the veins, blood can build up dangerously in the injured extremity. So they're using leeches to suck out the blood until the thumb heals, Ahrendt said. It is, he said, an increasingly common treatment, even if it does evoke the Middle Ages.

Harms, he said, "has been a trouper this whole time." She faces more surgery but may be well enough to go home this weekend, he added.

Of course, the only home she's ever known has been reduced to rubble. And she lost her 9-year-old dog in the explosion.

"Yeah, it is kind of devastating and all," she allowed Tuesday morning. Harms, who is single, said she would like to rebuild on the site, which is near her brother's home. In the meantime, she'll start looking for an apartment.

But she wants people back home to know she appreciates their help and concern. "I want to thank everybody in my community for all they did for me," she said. The rescue crew "saved my life."

As to the Fridgidaire and her good fortune, she has only one explanation.

"There's an angel watching over me," she said.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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