Lake Elmo, MN- Pioneer Press, By Alex Friedrich

The last thing Pat Gollner did before his Lake Elmo mobile home exploded Monday evening was step into his bathroom and light a cigarette.

That statement, which the 42-year-old apparently made to emergency responders that night, is all that Washington County sheriff’s deputies and fire officials say they have to go on at the moment as they investigate why his home went up in smoke.

As of Tuesday afternoon, fire officials had not excluded any theories as they picked their way through the rubble that once was Gollner’s home in the Cimarron mobile home park.

The 6:20 p.m. explosion shattered nearby windows, scattered debris and blew Gollner about 15 feet into his back yard, neighbors say. He remains in fair condition at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, a relative said, with second-degree burns on his hands, forearms and face.

Xcel Energy officials have investigated and ruled out a leak in surrounding gas lines, Lake Elmo Fire Chief Greg Malmquist said. But the line leading from Gollner’s house to his meter is still being checked.

In any case, the fire chief did say the explosion was a close call for neighbors. They escaped major damage and injury, because most of the explosive force went up instead of out.

“They’re very fortunate,” he said.

While law enforcement did not name the man inside the house, neighbors and former father-in-law Errol Bartz of Cottage Grove identified the victim as Gollner.

Neighbors described a boom that shook their houses, broke their windows and knocked knickknacks off shelves.

“I was lifted off my feet,” said Mark Carchasky, a 45-year-old who lives across the street. “And the guy next door said he was lifted right out of his chair.”

Seconds after the boom, neighbors from blocks around came running into the street to see what happened. They recalled seeing no fire after the initial explosion — just the roof gone and three of the trailer’s walls blown away.

Bits of debris rained down, and neighbors said they found some of it 100 yards away. On Tuesday, a chunk of yellow insulation remained hanging in the branches of a tree across the street.

“I haven’t seen stuff fly that high in a long time,” said 56-year-old neighbor John Fastner.

After a few quiet moments, neighbors recalled, the structure began to ignite, and they heard a few smaller explosions.

Two neighbors rushed out to rescue Gollner. They found him on his back with his arms outstretched, wearing sweat pants but no shirt or shoes.

Neighbors and Bartz said Gollner may have had a roommate, but emergency officials said he was alone at home at the time.

Malmquist said investigators have found no clues but did confirm they’d found a 1-pound propane tank and a “hand torch.” He said it’s a standard item in many households.

Some neighbors questioned whether gas lines played any role. In a May 2004 letter to Cimarron residents, City Planner Charles Dillerud wrote that the city was contracting to inspect Cimarron’s lines, because “some gas lines may have deteriorated over time, and have become a safety issue.”

Cimarron officials say they hope to fix or replace all the lines in the next two to three years.