The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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February 12, 2014

St. Clair man burned trying to douse fire

83-year-old duplex owner escapes

ST. CLAIR — A fire Wednesday morning that spread quickly in a second-floor bedroom of a St. Clair duplex sent a renter to the hospital with second-degree burns.

Kyle Rutjes, 24, was living in the portion of the duplex where the fire started, said Tom Karels, his neighbor. St. Clair firefighters were called to the fire at 226 W. Main St. at about 5:45 a.m. Wednesday. The owner of the duplex, 83-year-old Mary Miller, escaped without injury and was staying at Karels' house later Wednesday during the fire investigation.

Karels said he spoke to Rutjes' father, Grant, while he stopped at the duplex to recover any personal items that could be salvaged. Grant told Karels his son was attempting to put the fire out on his own when he was burned. Kyle hadn't realized how quickly the fire had spread while he went after some water, Karels said. The door to the room was closed while he was gone.

"He opened up the door and the fire shot out and his hair caught fire," Karels said. "He was trying to pat the fire in his hair when he burned his hands. That's what his father told me."

St. Clair Fire Chief Bill Fitzloff had a similar description of what happened. "He tried to put the fire out and he burned both of his hands and singed his face real bad," Fitzloff said.

Rutjes was taken to Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. He was discharged from that facility, and Karels said he was told Rutjes had been taken to a burn unit in the Twin Cities but didn't know which one.

A passerby who saw flames coming out of the roof of the duplex started banging on the doors. Rutjes came out and they both started knocking on Miller's door and windows, Karels said. A smoke detector already had woken Miller, who eventually came out wearing her pajamas, a heavy coat and boots. The fire had spread quickly through the roof and Miller's portion of her duplex.

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