Losses mount for explosion survivor

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2011 - 2:56 PM

Janice Harms says it's a miracle she's alive. But injuries and a cleanup order from the county are taking their toll.

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Two months ago, Janice Harms’ life was saved when her refrigerator shielded her from an explosion of leaking propane gas in the Clara City house built by her grandfather. Since then, the 65-year-old cook’s life has been a steady litany of broken bones, pain, three operations and other bad luck.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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CLARA CITY, MINN. - Janice Harms sat in the drizzle Monday morning, her wheelchair facing a swath of asbestos-riddled rubble, and thought about the fickle nature of luck.

Eight weeks ago she counted herself among the fortunate. When her house 2 miles north of town blew up around her ears in the middle of the night, she survived with just a few broken bones.

This week, looking on as men in protective gear collect, crush and cart off the remains of her home and belongings, she's not so sure.

"This is so hard to watch. It just hurts," said Harms, 65. "I mean, I'm lucky to be here, to be alive even. But I lost so much -- everything here, and Toby, my black lab."

On Aug. 13, Harms got up shortly after 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom and realized she had left the kitchen light on. Returning to bed through the kitchen, she said, she pulled the light chain. It triggered the explosion. She was saved from the collapsing timbers by the sturdy frame of her Frigidaire. Rescuers with a backhoe pulled her from the rubble an hour later, and she emerged with a broken left hand and left heel.

Then, last month, while still recovering at the Clara City nursing home, she was served with papers by a county public health officer ordering her to clean up the rubble. Bits of the destroyed house were strewn across her half-acre lot and onto adjacent property owned by her brother, Calvin.

"They could have just asked me," Harms said. "It's kind of embarrassing to get an order like that."

Unable to drive because of her broken bones, Harms got rides to the site of the century-old farmhouse, which was built by her German-immigrant grandfather, Jacob Harms, to see what she could do.

Three weeks ago on a visit, she fell and broke her other arm, requiring a metal plate in her forearm.

"I was nervous, you know. I maybe should have waited, but when the county tells you stuff like that, I had to do something," she said.

County officials say the site is a public health threat -- shot through with a mix of shattered wood and asbestos shingles, garbage, clothing and other belongings, all steeped in two months of rain and hot weather.

"We need to make sure the hazardous material is cleaned up. That's why we get the orders," said Kris Lee, who served the papers and was on hand Monday to ensure that the work was under way.

Pulling it together

By this week, the elements of a happier ending were coming together.

County health officials, though insistent that Harms clean up the rubble, gave her extra time to complete the job.

Farmers Co-op Oil Co., the company that provided LP gas to her home, has taken responsibility for the explosion. Its insurance will pay the estimated cleanup cost of $20,000 to $40,000. Dennis Larson, a specialty contractor from Montevideo, plans to clear about 500 cubic yards of waste by Friday and take it 60 miles to a hazardous-waste landfill.

(Four days before the blast, Farmers Co-op filled Harms' propane tank but, finding the tank empty, failed to conduct a pressure test that would have discovered the propane leak inside the house. A preliminary fire marshal's report says the explosion occurred because of a leaking fuel line inside the house.)

On Monday, with casts on two arms and a foot, but starting to heal, Harms sat at the edge of her lot and watched Larson's crew begin removing the hazardous rubble -- an unsortable mishmash of treasure and trash.

This isn't Harms' first encounter with the county. Sixteen years ago, a county judge ordered public health officials to clear the house of six Dumpsters full of trash accumulated after Harms' parents died. The house was full again before the explosion.

"Sure, some of this stuff isn't much, but some of it is important -- at least to me," Harms said Monday as she stood near the crater of her basement.

"They'll let me take some things, but most of this," she waved an arm at a collapsed second story, crammed with piles and bags of possessions, "well, I'll never see these things again."

'A miracle'

Harms expects to stay at the nursing home for two or three more weeks before moving to an apartment that the Farmers Co-op insurer found for her. Maybe in three for four months she can go back to work in the kitchen at Donner's Crossroads restaurant, she said.

She said she has to work at learning patience: "It's a miracle I'm alive. It's a miracle I only got broken bones. I need to remember that."

The house itself, valued by the county at $2,300 for tax purposes, was in poor condition and uninsurable.

"I'd like to rebuild, but I don't know if I can," she said. County zoning requires a minimum lot size of one acre.

"I kind of worry about that sort of thing, but I guess I really shouldn't," she said. "My house blew up and I'm here looking at the hole in the ground where I used to live. I guess that's pretty good."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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