JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
LEMON RESERVOIR – Mesa Propane serviceman Bobby Fuller arrived at the house of the reported propane leak around 8 p.m. Tuesday and could tell something wasn’t right.
No lights were on, and no one was standing outside to greet him.
He grabbed a flashlight and proceeded. Looking down, he saw a piece of insulation, plywood, nails and glass.
“About that time it dawned on me what had happened,” he said. “I looked for the house, and there was no house. It was there, but it wasn’t there.”
Fuller began looking for survivors. From a truck parked on the property, he heard a sound. He went to look, and what he found was nearly incomprehensible: 9-year-old Cameron Kelley in the front seat.
“She asked me who I was and what happened and if I was there to help,” Fuller said. “I could see her leg was not facing the right direction. She said it hurt really bad, and it was really cold.”
Fuller put the girl in his truck and cranked on the heater.
“She said, ‘Will you look for my mommy and daddy,’ and I said, ‘Yes I will.’”
Fuller ran back to the house to search for the parents – Tim and Karen Kelley – but he didn’t see or hear anything to suggest they were alive.
Fuller went back to check on the girl, and he agreed to search for the parents one more time.
He checked the perimeter of the exploded home again without finding any signs of life.
Desperate with no cell service or radio contact, Fuller made a split decision to focus his efforts on getting the girl help.
He drove the girl a short distance to her grandmother’s house and used a landline to call authorities.
The girl asked Fuller to call Riverview Elementary to let the school know she wouldn’t be there if things “don’t work out,” Fuller said.
“The kid is tougher than a boot,” he said. “She’s top-notch.”
A short time later, neighbors who went to investigate heard voices underneath the rubble.
When firefighters arrived at 8:38 p.m. at the house, at 6415 County Road 243, about 6½ miles north of Helen’s Store, they had a formidable task ahead of them.
“When we pulled up, it was just a pile of lumber,” said Rich Graeber, chief of Upper Pine Fire Protection District. “It just took a house and reduced it to toothpicks.”
The Kelleys, they would soon learn, were trapped underneath 4 feet to 6 feet of debris weighing 500 to 600 pounds. And they had been trapped there for more than an hour in temperatures in the teens.
“It was an amazing rescue,” Graeber said. “It was just hand-to-hand taking stuff out of there one pound at a time and trying not to have any of it fall on them.”
Once extracted from the rubble, the parents were transported by helicopter for emergency treatment. Cameron was taken by ambulance to Mercy Regional Medical Center.
Tim Kelley was taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center in serious condition before being flown to the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver for further care, a family friend said. Karen Kelley was in critical but stable condition in the intensive-care unit at University of Colorado Hospital.
Cameron was in good condition Wednesday at Mercy, said David Bruzzese, spokesman for the hospital.
Though the cause of the explosion appeared to be the propane leak the family reported Tuesday evening, the cause and origin of the ignition source remain under investigation.
Authorities believe the girl crawled out of the debris and into the truck to keep warm.
That anyone survived is a miracle, they said.
The house was built to withstand heavy snowloads, said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Preparedness. Massive support beams were brought to the ground. The explosion lifted the roof off its support beams, shredded the walls and obliterated the floor, Knowlton said.
The debris field stretched up to 300 feet in radius. Household items such as toys, books, children’s drawings and holiday decorations were strewn about the property. An empty picture frame hung on a tree limb about 200 feet from the house.
“This is one of the most devastating blasts I’ve ever experienced in my career,” Knowlton said. “It rained insulation until 1 o’clock in the morning. The mere fact that the family survived is a miracle.”
More good news came about noon Wednesday – 16 hours after the explosion – when family friends found Rocco, the family chocolate Labrador, buried under the debris. The dog was taken to Riverview Animal Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, cardiac arrhythmia and blunt trauma to the head.
“It’s just another bizarre miracle out of this whole thing,” said Bruce Evans, deputy chief of the Upper Pine Fire Protection District.
Graeber said if residents smell propane in the house, they should leave and call the fire department. If residents know how to turn off the propane, they should.
Propane is heavier than air, which means it can settle in the basement and other low-lying areas. One gallon of liquid propane expands to 265 gallons of vapor, Graeber said.
“You’ve got to get out of the house,” he said.
Firefighters estimated more than $850,000 in damage to the home and two vehicles.
In addition to Upper Pine Fire, Durango Fire & Rescue Authority and Los Pinos Fire Protection District responded. The Southwest Colorado Red Cross provided support to emergency responders.
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald