FIRST ALERT EXCLUSIVE: Survivors describe being in the Niagara home explosion
This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part can be found here.
NIAGARA, Wis. (WBAY) - Two people were inside a mobile home when it exploded in Niagara this past April. The shocking explosion was felt in the Town of Niagara and heard 30 miles away.
In an exclusive interview, Joe and Debi Henrichs sit down with our Brittany Schmidt, detailing their near-death experience in hopes of saving lives by bringing attention to the accident that could have killed them.
Marinette County Dispatch...
There was a huge explosion. Smoke coming from the golf course.
A mobile home explosion in the town of Niagara.
My house shook. Unbelievable.
Heard and felt miles away.
Hi. Has anyone called about a big explosion in Niagara area?
The home, gone.
The mobile home is in shreds. It’s bad. It’s bad.
It’s dropping insulation all over the property and it shook everything.
How many people live there?...
I know there are two people over there, a couple dogs. I just yelled you to him. I said, ‘Are you OK? All my windows blew in.’ And he said, ‘No, call an ambulance immediately.’”
“I remember everything,” says Joe.
While spending a weekend up north on their land in Niagara and taking in these incredible views --
“It’s a nice getaway for us that we can unwind and see the family,” Joe says.
-- Joe and Debi Henrichs remember waking up on Sunday, April 10, to a cold trailer.
“I just thought, well, something, the pilot light must’ve went out, and I looked and sure enough the pilot light was out, and I just didn’t think a lot of it,” Joe says.
While Debi moved to the front of the trailer to feed their two dogs, Rocky and Ralphie, Joe moved to the back to fix the propane furnace.
“When I went to relight the pilot light, unbeknownst to me the house it filled with propane gas, and that’s what ignited the explosion,” he says.
The explosion, felt across the road and heard 30 miles away, prompted multiple 911 calls.
We have an explosion. House across from me, and there are people injured.
“The best way I can describe it is just so much energy. There’s just so much power and just force and fire,” Joe says.
“I saw flames and in, in the pain kind of hit right away. There was like an instant sting, you know, to stand back and, and then I just kind of felt like I was sailing,” he continues, “and to me it felt like I landed on a slide, which was probably a wall, it tipped over and I kind of landed on that and slid a little bit and I was out in the yard.”
So much commotion. Debris flying everywhere.
“I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. Did that really just happen?” Joe recalls.
“There’s just, nothing’s moving. It was totally silent,” he describes.
Just silence as the debris settled. That is until --
“I heard her voice. Of course, I wanted to get over to her,” Joe says.
“I didn’t want her to think I was gone,” he goes on. “I just kept saying, ‘I’m coming to get you,’ and I got around to her. She was just -- the grace of God -- she was at a spot that I could get her out.”
“Because there was so much damage, like even the floor was, was blown up and not there. And I happen to be in an area where there was floor still, so I was sitting on that area,” Debi says.
She describes, “I kind of remember just like a whirlwind around me like a tornado or something, but then I don’t remember. I don’t remember that much of anything.”
But she does remember hearing her husband’s voice.
“It was just, I don’t know what happened. And he, his voice was just comforting that, you know, he was OK.”
Tearfully she says, “He’s my hero, and I don’t think words can explain what it was like to see him and to know that we got through it together.”
Together for just a few minutes before Debi was put into an ambulance.
“That’s the last I remember,” she says.
Joe, into another moments later.
“If you are subjected to a force sufficient to lift you off your feet and throw you -- and that’s a lot of energy that your body absorbs -- and I kind of got learned that firsthand. But again at the time, but I didn’t think I was that bad off,” Joe says.
But he was. After being airlifted to a hospital in Milwaukee, doctors quickly realized severe internal trauma to his spleen and liver.
“The next time I woke up, I had a belly to here and I had the open wound because they could close that right away as well the trauma and the swelling and everything,” Joe describes.
Joe suffered burns to his arms and hands.
Debi was airlifted to a different hospital.
“I had like 20% to 30% of my body was burned. I had three broken ribs. I sustained a head injury, soft tissue damage,” she lists.
After spending a week in separate hospitals -- “That was, that was the hard part,” Debi says -- Joe and Debi were reunited at their home in Mequon.
“He had gotten out on Saturday and I got out on Monday, and we just came in and he was sitting in the recliner, and I came in and he stood up and hugged and kissed. It was, it was really nice,” Debi says.
“Yeah,” says Joe.
A sigh of relief -- finally -- as they recover at home together, counting their many blessings.
“Grace of God is the only, is the only explanation we can come up with,” Debi says.
“Everybody did completely the right thing. They were all fast and helpful and knew what they were doing, and we just couldn’t have asked for more to help us,” Joe adds.
But more help rolled in. As news spread of the mobile home explosion, people started donating to a GoFundMe page and local bank.
“It really put us in tears just hearing about it, because we were just so, so grateful to everyone,” they tell us together. “We were overwhelmed, overwhelmed. There’s a good word, even if people come to the store just to ask what we were doing, and that counts to you know, prayers and thoughts. Absolutely.”
Family members helped clean up the debris, finding bits and pieces of the home, still in shock Debi and Joe survived.
Rick Henrichs, Joe’s cousin, told us in April, “It had to be a miracle that they could even survive. I couldn’t believe it. When you see that kind of destruction, nobody lives, normally.”
But Rick says what he found in the rubble could answer those questions.
“I pulled it out and said, ‘Check this out, Laura.’ There’s a Bible under here and it’s in perfect condition. I said, I guess it just isn’t their day, someone had other plans for them.”
Debi says, “That just spoke volumes to, you know, why we’re still here, you know, with, with the Lord around us. It was, it was protection. And you know the bible, His word stayed pure and he kept us safe.”
“Obviously,” Joe says. “I guess we have unfinished work to do here.”
And that work begins now. Joe and Debi are still on the road to recovery. They are back to work, as well.
They decided to share their story with us because there is a device they weren’t necessarily aware of that they believe could have prevented the explosion and they really want people to know about it. Read part 2 of our exclusive interview for information on explosive-gas alarms, the Henrichs’ call to action, and their plans for the future -- which involves the site of their former home in Niagara.
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