Lakefield, MN – LAKEFIELD, MINN. — Robert Kruger lay writhing alone on the linoleum floor in the kitchen of his neighbor’s farmhouse, screaming for the end.
“Please, God, let me die!”
Sharp, deep burns stung his back and arms. He coiled, delirious with pain.
All he had wanted was a warm shower. When he went to relight the pilot on his water heater, he didn’t know that propane gas had leaked into the basement of the rented house he shared with his brother near Dundee, Minn.
He struck a match.
The explosion destroyed the house and plunged him into unimaginable pain from mostly third-degree burns over 54 percent of his body. Minutes later, as he lay on the floor at his neighbor’s house, where he’d gone to call 911, he thought he would rather die than live through any more.
Now, a year and a half after the explosion leveled the house, Kruger, interviewed at his mother’s home near Lakefield, Minn., where he now lives, said he wants to save others from a similar fate. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” he said.
Who is responsible for such explosions is a point of debate.
Estimates on the number of propane explosions nationwide vary. The National Fire Protection Association reports that in 1998, there were 1,600 propane fires in U.S. homes, resulting in 41 deaths and 260 injuries.
In Minnesota, more than 210,000 households use propane for heating, according to the Propane Education & Research Council. An explosion in Maple Lake destroyed a house in early October while the homeowner was away.
In September, a propane explosion at a house near New York Mills sent two people to the hospital. Many propane fires happen in rural areas where natural gas lines aren’t plentiful.
While there are dangers and necessary precautions with any power source, some who have studied the propane industry say it should do more to make people aware of the precautions for propane.
Kruger, 46, is suing the companies that bottled and sold the propane, commonly called LP gas, claiming they were negligent in not demanding that he use a propane detector and in failing to warn him that the odor added to the gas may fade.
Kruger’s St. Paul attorney, Greg McEwen, claims it’s an industry problem of failing to inform customers properly about how to handle propane.
Industry attorneys say that explosions are a horrible tragedy, but that the industry isn’t to blame. Pamphlets with warnings of odor fade and recommendations to use a gas detector are dispensed, they say. And they contend that odor fade is rare and gas detectors are only an aid, that people are still responsible for ensuring safety by following proper procedures.
Propane is safe when used properly, those representing the industry say. Too many homeowners try to install or repair equipment themselves, they say.
Paul Peterson, an attorney for the Nobles County Cooperative Oil Co., which is a defendant along with Cenex in Kruger’s lawsuit, said that the company is committed to safety and that it provides information to its LP gas customers. Peterson said instructions weren’t properly followed in Kruger’s case; Kruger was lighting the pilot light, for instance, though literature recommends letting a professional do it.
McEwen said Kruger never received the warning literature.
A flash, then pain
Kruger, a construction worker, had come home sticky with debris from tearing shingles off a roof that afternoon in June 2002.
He headed straight for the basement shower in the old white farmhouse. Only cold water poured out.
He turned off the water heater’s propane gas valve and scrounged up a match. He waited a few minutes. Rubbed match against flint.
A bright orange flash knocked him off his feet.
For a split second, he was motionless: “It was like, ‘What happened?’ ” he recalled. Then he was screaming in terror.
He crawled from his basement and outside, then rolled on the grass to put out the flames. He got in his pickup truck and drove to his nearest neighbor to call for help. When he found nobody home, he drove to a friend’s house a mile away. When nobody responded to his knocks, he kicked in the door in desperation and headed for the phone.
“My house exploded!” he told the 911 operator.
He got off the phone quickly because he wanted desperately to jump in his friend’s shower to cool the hot sting. The cold water provided little relief.
He’d told the 911 operator where his burning house was but remembered that he hadn’t said where he was, so he dialed again.
How much warning?
The arguments that will be raised in Kruger’s lawsuit illuminate the debate about how much warning is reasonable.
McEwen, Kruger’s attorney, has worked on similar suits in 27 other cases nationwide over the past five years, carving out a niche for himself as a propane plaintiff’s attorney and securing more than $48 million in the settlements of 18 suits, he said. Three suits yielded nothing. The rest are in the court system.
McEwen said the propane industry could do more to promote safety awareness to its customers, such as training delivery people to tell customers about gas detectors and odor fade. The industry could put more safety tips in ad campaigns and could refuse to deliver propane unless people have detectors in their homes, he suggested.
The Propane Education & Research Council is embarking on a new safety education campaign, trying to make sure people remember advice they receive about using propane, a council spokesman said.
Minneapolis propane defense attorney Russ Melton said the industry sometimes settles suits rather than go to trial because tragedy often trumps fact with juries.
“Burn cases are many times settled because of emotional issues,” said Melton, who has defended against dozens of suits. “It comes down to, ‘Well, they got hurt; somebody’s gotta pay.’ “
While propane companies do recommend using gas detectors, they don’t emphasize it enough, said attorney Don Beattie, who has handled dozens of cases against the industry. “They do it in a sly way, and the sly way is put it in the fine print . . . so when they get sued they can say, ‘We told them to get a gas detector and they chose not to,’ ” Beattie said.
But industry representatives say that gas detectors aren’t foolproof and that they don’t want people to rely solely on them. Like smoke detectors, propane detectors will sound an alarm only if propane reaches them. And because propane is heavier than air, it often sinks to low spots in a house. Though detectors are supposed to be placed low, fugitive propane may not reach the detector.
If detectors were the answer, regulators would have made them mandatory, said Bill Mahre, a consultant who has worked in the propane industry for decades and has testified for Melton’s clients.
Kruger said it pains him to think that the explosion at his farmhouse could have been prevented. He hadn’t thought much about such accidents before. Now the scars on his face, neck and hands make him think about it all the time.
On Polaroids the hospital took right after the explosion, his face appears puffy, his torso and arms bright red with burns, his hands blackened.
Weeks later, he woke up in a hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. Doctors had kept him in a long, drug-induced coma while they performed six or seven surgeries, tearing off skin to prevent infection and grafting skin from other parts of his body to cover the burns.
The explosion was just the start of the pain.
He had to learn how to stand and walk. He still wears special compression clothes to keep his skin from scarring too much, tightening and making it harder to move. He has trouble buttoning his shirts.
His skin no longer regulates his body temperature as well as it used to — the winter chill stings him, summer sun burns — so he can’t spend as much time hunting, playing golf and working outside.
“There’s a lot of things I used to be able to do that I can’t do. . . . It’s frustrating,” he said matter-of-factly as he sat at the kitchen table in his mother’s house.
“You take for granted everything you have,” he said. “I don’t anymore.”