An Onawa, Iowa man is hospitalized in Omaha in critical condition after suffering burns in an explosion on Tuesday.
Eighty-year-old Earl Thelander was injured in the basement of a vacant house he owns in rural Onawa, about an hour north of the metro area.
"If he has two enemies in the world it would surprise me, says Doug Thelander, Earl's son.
"Always seemed to help neighbors who'd call on him when he's needed, said Eddie Wagner, who runs the local hardware store. "Didn't seem to matter if it was day or night, just whenever he's needed, just like a good neighbor."
Thieves had broken in earlier on Tuesday, first stealing copper water lines, then the gas line. The house filled with propane gas. Police arrived, the gas was shut off and the windows opened.
A few hours later, Thelander, a longtime plumber who was renovating the house, no longer smelled gas, turned on a fan to air out the structure. That ignited a pocket of gas that remained.
The blast threw Earl across the basement. "He was right at the center of the explosion and actually walked out through the fire to get outside the house,” said Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt.
Earl drove himself to the hospital in Onawa with third-degree burns on 40% of his body. He was later transferred to the Nebraska Medical Center.
“It's senseless,” says Doug Thelander. "People stealing copper out of these houses for $20 worth of copper. We've got a man fighting for his life. This is a man that's worked in the heating and air conditioning trade all his life. It isn't like he was some old guy fumbling around."
I'm pretty sure he was careful when he was doing it," says Wagner. "It's just one of the things that happens."
Sheriff Pratt says anyone with information concerning this incident should call the Monona County Sheriff’s Department at 1-800-859-1414. The calls are confidential. The sheriff also wants area salvage yards to beware of those selling copper and report any suspicious activity.