Archive for Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Rural resident critically injured in blast

November 17, 2004

A rural Leavenworth County man, who family members say was welding a gasoline tank to a truck, was critically burned Tuesday morning in an explosion and ensuing fire four miles east of Tonganoxie.

Elmer "Bill" Lee, 39, was working on the truck in a barn behind his parents-in-law home at 18275 182nd St., when an explosion occurred.

"He's burned terrible," said his mother-in-law, Aletha Beach, after Lee was taken by air ambulance to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan. About 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, sheriff's officers said Lee was in critical condition at the hospital.

Lee's stepdaughter, Jaime Smith, saw him running from the barn after the explosion, about 9:50 a.m.

"He was yelling, 'Help me,'" Smith said. "I told him to drop and roll to put himself out. He was covered in gasoline."

Once firefighters and paramedics arrived, they were pushed back from the barn several times as smaller explosions rocked the area. Black, thick smoke billowed from the metal barn, which melted under the strain of the fire and explosions.

Beach said her son-in-law, who lived in the basement of the Beach home, apparently was working on a truck at the time of the accident.

"He told me this morning, 'I don't know what I'll do today. I think I'll finishing putting on that gas tank,'" Beach recalled.

Ironically, family members said, Lee had recently helped the Todd family finish bulldozing the remains of their home, which was destroyed on Oct. 7 by fire. The Todd home is north of Tonganoxie.

Smith said her stepfather had been living with her grandparents for a little more than a year.

"He helped with my grandpa," she said. "My grandpa has Parkinson's disease."

Sgt. Charlie Yates of the Leavenworth County sheriff's office said the investigation showed that Lee apparently had been welding inside the barn and that the explosion was accidental

Smith's mother died nearly three years ago, and her stepfather had been living with her grandparents, Althea and Alvey Beach, helping care for Mr. Beach.

"It's a tragedy," Smith said. "That's what it is. I lost my mom, and now my stepdad."

The memory of what she saw Tuesday morning is haunting.

"I never witnessed anything like that in my life," Smith said. "You see that on TV, and you feel sorry for them. But when it's someone you know."

She broke down.

In addition to the sheriff's office, a total of 21 firefighters from five Leavenworth County fire departments responded to the explosion and fire.

In addition to firefighters from Stranger Township, Tonganoxie city, Fairmount Township, Sherman Township and Tonganoxie Township, emergency medical technicians from Leavenworth County Emergency Medical Service responded to the scene, working to stabilize Lee's condition before he was flown to the medical center.

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