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Son pulls dad from house fire

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Don Leinen's garage exploded Sunday morning with enough force to blow away the walls, dropping the roof on his car and setting his house on fire so quickly the flames were 60 feet high in minutes.

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Luckily for the 76-year-old retired farmer from Great Bend, N.D., his son lives right across the street.

"Don't make this sound like a hero. I'm not. I'm serious. It was my dad, and I was going to get him out of there," said Jeff Leinen, the

52-year-old son who - along with other family members - helped build the house in 1979.

"It was just instinct to go and find him," Jeff Leinen said Sunday night. "I needed to do what I had to do."

When they heard the 3 a.m. blast, Jeff and his wife bolted out of bed speechless. Leinen first thought it was his corn dryer that blew. Then his wife, Maxine, saw through the window that Don's house was ablaze.

As Maxine tried to call 911, unable to get a dial tone because the explosion knocked the phone off the hook, Jeff ran across the street. He first tried to get in by crawling through a basement window, blown out by the explosion like the rest of the house's windows. But there was too much debris to make it upstairs. He got back out and went around to the patio window of the bi-level home, rushing down the hallway to his dad's bedroom.

"He was kind of confused," Jeff said. "He didn't really know what to do. I told him we've got to get out of here. He said, 'I've got to get some clothes.' "

So Don, who had been the town's fire chief for more than two decades, put on a T-shirt and some sweatpants. As they were leaving, he wanted to grab his wallet. His son said they didn't have time, but Don pulled his arm away to go get his billfold.

"He's stubborn as can be. Gee whiz, it was right close by," Leinen said.

The fire was already coming up the stairs to the house's top level as they scurried out the patio window by walking over broken glass. Both escaped without injury.

The explosion also woke up Pat Porter, Great Bend's fire chief. Porter, who lives four blocks away from the Leinens, knew that Don would need to get out fast.

"That's all I could think of as I was throwing my pants on, 'Please let him be out of the house,' " Porter said.

By the time Porter was driving to the scene, he could already see the tall flames. "Oh, I would go 60 feet in the air," he said. "That would be minutes after the explosion."

It took about 90 minutes to knock down the fire with help from fire departments from Hankinson, Dwight, Mantador and Fairmount. The house at 25 River Road, which was insured, was a total loss.

Porter said the initial investigation of the explosion's cause points to a malfunctioning propane heater that may have been ignited by the pilot light on a stove in the garage. The fire chief said gas from the garage explosion likely hastened the house's burning.

Don's wife, Margaret, who died last year, used the stove for canning, Jeff Leinen said. Many of Margaret's personal effects were still in the home, waiting to be sorted through after her death.

"He was still going through the grieving process of that," Leinen said of his dad. "It was tough to see that part of it."

Don is staying with another of his sons, Don Leinen, Jr., one of his eight children - most who still live in the region, Jeff Leinen said.

A steady crew of friends and neighbors stopped by Sunday to check on the family, dropping off clothes and food. One couple gave them a $150 gift certificate to Wal-Mart they had recently won in a raffle.

And though he credits it to mere instinct, and his father was helped by the fact that his bedroom was on the side of the house that faces away from the garage, Porter said Leinen's fast action was key.

"Jeff was Johnny-on-the-spot," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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