Minneapolis, MN- On the afternoon of Aug. 17, Jose Aguirre wasn’t feeling well.
He had been sick for almost two weeks. A doctor said he had walking pneumonia, a diagnosis that explained the stuffed-up nose Aguirre had been suffering from.
His nose couldn’t tell him that there was a natural gas leak in his house at 718 E. Hanson Ave. in Mitchell. When he turned on his stove, the subsequent explosion did.
“I was just trying to cook something to eat,” Aguirre, 38, said this week in an interview with The Daily Republic. “The next thing you know, I’m outside.” The home Aguirre had rented for four years from Morgan Properties was destroyed in the explosion. Aguirre was airlifted to Minneapolis with second- and third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body and a partially collapsed lung.
Three months later, Aguirre is recovering at his brother’s home in Yankton. The burns on his legs, arms and back are healing up, thanks in part to skin grafts he received while in the hospital. He wears compression garments on his legs and hands to reduce scarring, although he has no idea what kind of scarring will result from the explosion.
“It’s like a wait-and-see thing,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre speaks softly and politely as he talks about his experiences. He remembers the explosion, remembers seeing an ambulance driver, and remembers asking the driver to dig the phone out of his pocket so his sister could be alerted about what happened.
“The next thing I know, I’m waking up in the hospital,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre has been doing physical therapy for months, but recently his routine was scaled back from five days a week to three. Friday, Aguirre completed the last of his physical therapy in Yankton. Occupational therapy will continue.
Not an isolated incident Tom Glanzer, spokesman for NorthWestern Energy, said an independent pressure test showed no leaks in NorthWestern’s portion of the line to Aguirre’s residence. It was apparently the line in the home that released the gas and contributed to the explosion.
To Glanzer, the incident is a powerful reminder for people to closely monitor their systems. If people smell gas, they should contact their energy provider or call 911, he said.
He also urges people to have an annual furnace inspection conducted in their homes.
“Especially as we get into the heating season now, everybody’s starting to kick on their furnaces,” Glanzer said. “We want our customers to know how to use natural gas safely.” Sadly, Aguirre’s experience was not an isolated incident.
On March 8, 2007, a house at 1612 Bridle Drive in Mitchell exploded, destroying the house and damaging two neighboring houses beyond repair but injuring no one. It was later determined that an excavator caused damage to a NorthWestern pipe in that incident.
Seven months later, Wessington Springs farmer and firefighter Darrick Van Dyke received burns to roughly 80 percent of his body when a propane explosion destroyed his home. Van Dyke later sued the propane provider and reached a private settlement out of court.
Only days after Aguirre’s home exploded, Gail Guthmiller was killed when her Menno home was destroyed in what officials believe was a natural gas explosion. The cause of that explosion was determined to be similar to what caused the Aguirre explosion — a leak not in the pipe leading to the home, but within the home itself.
Northwestern Energy, which supplied the gas to both the Aguirre and Guthmiller residences, adds a chemical called mercaptan to gas in order to give the odorless substance a rotten-egg smell.
Moving forward Aguirre’s demeanor is polite, but a toughness also shows through.
When his physical therapist asked him to stand for 10 seconds on one leg Friday, he answered, “I’ll do 15.” He doesn’t acknowledge any pain from the incident. He’d rather talk about how he wants to play golf again, and get back to work at Twin City Fan, something his doctors have told him cannot happen until February or March.
When the subject of money comes up, the tone of Aguirre’s voice drops considerably and reflects obvious concern.
Aguirre said he had health insurance at the time of the explosion, but he’s since had to switch to COBRA, a form of temporary insurance. He said the insurance costs $401 per month.
A fund established at Wells Fargo has helped — Aguirre said he does not know much total debt he’ll have from the incident — but there isn’t much money available to deal with the bills.
“It’s dwindling down,” he said.
He said he’s met briefly with a Yankton lawyer, but no litigation has been filed.
A representative from Morgan Properties — the owner of Aguirre’s former home — could not be reached Friday for comment.
While the future has yet to be written for Jose Aguirre, he knows one thing: he’s ready to get back to his regular routine.
“I’m just getting better and trying to get back to work as soon as possible,” he said.