FIRST ALERT EXCLUSIVE: Explosion survivors want other homeowners to take action
This is the second part of a two-part series. In part one, Joe and Debi Henrichs described their near-death experience and recovery from the April explosion. Click here for that part of our exclusive interview.
NIAGARA, Wis. (WBAY) - “By the grace of God.” That’s how Joe and Debi Henrichs say they survived their mobile home explosion in the town of Niagara back in April.
Now they’re sharing their remarkable story of survival -- with a purpose, a call to action to homeowners everywhere to protect themselves with one simple device.
When you look at what’s left of their trailer home, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could survive the force of the blast.
“The best way I can describe it is just so much energy,” Joe says. “There’s just so much power and just force and fire.”
“And I kind of remember just like a whirlwind around me, like a tornado or something,” Debi describes.
But Joe and Debi Henrichs did survive. “Grace of God is the only explanation we can come up with,” Debi says.
And now they want to share their near-death experience in hopes of saving lives by bringing attention to the accident that could have killed them.
“What I remember was when it was still sort of cold. Spring wasn’t really on full speed yet, and when we woke up it was cold in the house,” Joe recalls.
So Joe did what so many people up north do when their propane furnace isn’t working. He checked the pilot light.
“Sure enough the pilot light was out, and I just didn’t think a lot of it.”
Until he lit it.
And the mobile home exploded.
“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, 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,” Joe remembers.
“Even though like there was no ceiling or walls left, I don’t really remember that really computing in my head,” Debi says. “It was just, I didn’t know what happened. And he, his voice was just comforting that you know he was okay and it, and that we were going to get out together.”
“Obviously, I guess, we have unfinished work to do here,” says Joe.
And that work begins now, by talking about multi-gas detectors.
“This will detect propane natural gas and about any other explosive gas and it could save someone’s life,” Debi explains. “So I just really encourage people to put this in their home, in their trailer home.”
Debi and Joe believe this device would have prevented the explosion from ever happening.
“We’ll probably never know what really happened, but there was a failure of some kind and the valve just broke through, a fitting became loose, but the gas, the gas just didn’t shut off,” Joe says.
Explosive-gas alarms can be found in hardware and home goods stores or online for $40, $50 or $80. They’re like carbon monoxide detectors -- and often include CO detection along with alarms for propane and methane/natural gas. There are plug-in, wired, and portable versions.
Joe says the device would have detected the gas before it got to a dangerous level, even before there would have been a strong odor -- one they were unable smell due to COVID infections months earlier.
“My smell had been compromised for months, for months earlier, and I just, I can’t, I can’t smell anything, and you know, we’d probably been sleeping in it for a number of hours and may have been desensitized to the smell,” says Joe.
Their message is not one of fear but rather a message of being prepared.
“I even had a call from an old friend of mine,” Joe tells us. “He said, ‘I thought of you the other day because the water was cold and I went to light the light on the water heater.’ And I said, ‘Please tell me you didn’t just go light it.’ And they said, ‘If you don’t buy a detector, I’ll buy one for you.’”
So now the Henrichs take theirs on every trip, including a recent one back to the town of Niagara to see their now-empty property.
“Some little part of me felt like we were gonna get to the top of the hill and everything would still be there, even though I kind of know that it wasn’t gonna be there,” Joe says.
“It was surreal. It was so sad. There were some emotional moments for sure,” Debi adds.
She shares, “When he got back in the car from seeing the site, he said, ‘You know, this is where I almost killed you,’ and I said, ‘This is where God saved us.’ So it’s all in how you look at it, you know, and it’s like, you really got to flip it around and just be grateful.”
Grateful for the first responders who saved their lives and the community they hope to be a part of permanently one day as they build their new home where their old one stood.
“I couldn’t think of anything that I would want more than just to be part of a loving community where you feel like everyone’s your friend. Everyone can be family,” says Debi.
“I just want to make sure every single person just knows that they touched us and we appreciate it,” adds Joe.
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