Leland, MI – Matthew Johnson lay beneath what remained of his Solon Township home Saturday evening and prayed that his family would be pulled to safety.
His prayers were answered.
Johnson, 29, his 25-year-old wife, Sarah, and their 8-month-old son, Harrison, were pulled from the wreckage of a home at 5663 E. Hoxie Rd. that exploded about 5:30 Saturday afternoon. The apparent cause: a propane gas leak.
Earlier in the day, Johnson and his father-in-law, Fred Campbell, had worked to light the water heater at the home, which is owned by Campbell.
Johnson was in the bathroom washing his hands when his world literally crumbled from beneath him.
There was a loud explosion and I was blown 10 to 15 feet in the air, Johnson said. All I could see was graylike dust and debris spinning in place all around me. It was like, whats going on? It was surreal.
Then he fell like falling into the bottomless pit experienced in dreams, he said and landed in the crawl space on his left side.
Everything but his left arm was pinned under debris.
Unable to determine the extent of injuries to his buried lower extremities, Johnson pleaded with God to save his young family.
My God, my God. Please, God, he remembered saying.
Gathering strength, Johnson was able to create breathing space by wriggling around and using his free hand to pull his cell phone from his belt. Not knowing whether his call would go through given the hilly terrain, he punched in 9-1-1. His call went to Benzie County first, and was redirected to Leelanau County.
I kept praying that I wouldnt lose the signal. The operator kept asking questions and I started to become frantic and said Send help. My wife and son are also trapped.
In the distance he could hear sirens and rescue workers asking whether the gas or electricity had been turned off. He also heard his little boy whimpering, which gave him hope that he had survived the blast.
Pete Zimmerman and his wife, Kathy, were getting into their car to drive to Suttons Bay for a casual dinner. Little did they know that the noise they thought was thunder was actually their Solon Township neighbors home exploding.
When we came around the corner, I saw two police cars and heard them say there were three people, including an infant, in the house when it blew, Zimmerman said. My heart just sunk when I heard about the child. I couldnt believe anyone could survive that.
Zimmermans 25 years of experience in the oil fields and knowledge gained during training through Texas A & Ms Industrial Rescue and Fire Suppression program immediately kicked in.
I went to the back of the building and turned off the gas and circuit breakers. The last thing they needed was a fire, Zimmerman said.
Johnson was recovered from the wreckage first and transferred directly to a waiting ambulance. As he left, he pointed to a peaked roof area where he believed his son was located. It was not until he was well on his way to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City that he learned that his wife and son had too made it out alive.
Minutes passed like hours for those on the scene as rescue crews searched for the 8-month-old baby. It was Elmwood Township firefighter J.R. St. Croix who eventually discovered the little boy.
It took 20 to 30 minutes to find the baby, then we finally heard him, said Campbell, who lives about 900 feet away, just up the hill from the 1,100 square-foot home. He was in the middle of the wreckage, and thankfully protected by the peak in the roof that has collapsed all around him.
It was an emotional victory for fire and rescue personnel as well as law enforcement officers, who were covered in cuts, splinters and insulation as they dug through debris.
I got there just as they were pulling that little guy out on a backboard, Undersheriff Scott Wooters said. It was like when all the world was watching as they pull that little girl out of the well (in Texas). He was yelling pretty good. But it was a good soundSomething everyone was relieved to hear.
Harrisons cheeks bear an imprint from the netting of the playpen in which he was playing at the time of the explosion. But other than scrapes, he appears to have come through the experience fine. His mother, Sarah, also has cuts and bruises, but no broken bones. Johnson, released from the hospital Monday, shattered his left heel in the explosion and was expected to undergo orthopedic surgery later this week.
Tuesday afternoon, his father-in-law was turning over pieces of debris and found the couples wedding album, a wedding present (a toaster still in its box) and his daughters purse.
Meanwhile, his daughter and son-in-law are giving thanks to all those who responded. Tribal officer Eric Rant and Leelanau deputy Mary Patterson were first to the scene. Also responding, along with fire and rescue crews from Elmwood, Lake Leelanau, Leland and Cedar, were trooper Tim Halvorsen and county deputy Scott Robinson.
(Patterson) was there almost immediately, and we were so impressed with the response time and the number of rescuers, Campbell said.
In lieu of donations, the family would prefer gifts go to area fire and rescue crews, the American Red Cross and Munson Medical Center.
If anybodys faith has ever been tested, this will open your eyes to the light, Johnson said. It was not happenstance that we were saved.