The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 12, 2014

St. Clair man burned trying to douse fire

83-year-old duplex owner escapes

By Dan Nienaber

---- — 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.

"I was sound asleep," Miller said. "I went out to the kitchen area to check the stove and see if I left anything on, and the smoke alarm just kept going off. Then a lady from Minnesota Elevator and Ryan said I had to get out right now. She helped me put on my coat and boots, then I grabbed my purse and glasses and got out."

According to Rutjes' Facebook site, he is an electric guitar player who had played in area bands. Miller and Karels said he works for Speedy Delivery.

The house was built in 1915 and had a taxable value of about $88,000 for 2013, according to Blue Earth County property records.

"I'll be surprised if it's not a total loss," Fitzloff said. "We kept thinking we had it down, but it would pop up again. There's a bunch of additions on the house and there are no fire stops."

The St. Clair Fire Department, which is two houses away from the duplex, called for mutual aid from Eagle Lake and Pemberton.

The Red Cross responded to make sure Miller's emergency needs were met. A Red Cross worker told Karels a fund to help Miller would be set up at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Mankato.

The cause of the fire has not been determined as of Wednesday morning, Fitzloff said.