Wes Michaels -- a local hero
In late fall of 1976, our little town of Fertile, Minn., escaped what could have been a major disaster.
A train rolled through town just after 11 p.m., pulling several propane tanker cars. One of them apparently had a leak. When a spark flew, all hell broke loose.
Leaking propane had apparently spread throughout town before the spark, for people dozens of blocks away reported seeing their lawns on fire.
The blinding flash of the immense explosion was seen in Bemidji, 70 miles away, and shut off the streetlights in Gary, Minn., 12 miles to the south. People 20 miles away reported seeing flames high over the town.
The heat melted the plastic curtains in the nearby school like grilled cheese. A house near the tracks burst into flames and quickly burnt to the ground.
More scary yet, the tanker car blasted off like a rocket and went airborne for 600 feet, straight towards the heart of the town.
Fortunately, the tanker's flight path remained parallel to the tracks. If it had veered sideways in either direction, the huge missile could have wiped out a dozen homes containing sleeping citizens.
As the tanker landed, it did take the corner off one house. It then rolled through a second house, knocking the walls out, leaving the unscathed roof to settle on the rubbish.
A few yards later the tanker rolled to a stop against a garage and on top of an unfortunate car, which was flattened more thoroughly than if it had been crushed by a car crusher.
Casualties? The Olsons got out of their house before it burned. The lady who lived in the house that was demolished was away visiting that night.
Incredibly, a young man usually slept in the car that was crushed, but that night he had decided to sleep inside for once.
The only one injured? Twenty-four-year-old Wes Michaels.
He had just walked out of the house in which he lived when the tanker flew past. It missed him by inches. The force of the wind from the passing tanker pushed him back through the doorway and bruised him up good.
It was a miracle more people weren't hurt. Fireman Rod Oistad later suffered a heart attack after going without sleep for days to help hose down the remaining tankers to make sure they, too, didn't turn lethal.
The town was evacuated. More importantly to me, school was cancelled. The three networks came. Ever shameless, they seemed only interested in interviewing the locals with the heaviest accents they could find.
But the bottom line was little Fertile escaped without loss of life. Soon the Explosion of 1976 was forgotten by all but those who saw the incredible event first-hand.
After Wes Michaels healed up from his close encounter with a tanker, he headed back to work at Lee Nursery, owned by my Uncle Orville and Aunt Ede.
I knew Wes in that capacity through the years, although not that well. All I knew was that when I called Lee Nursery to find out if they had my tree order ready, Aunt Ede would set the phone down, stick her head out the front door and holler at the top of her lungs: "Wessieeeeeee!"
For although Wes began work at the nursery as a teen, he quickly became a foreman if for no other reason than he had a penchant for hard work, knew where everything was and exactly what needed to be done.
Last week, almost 34 years after Wes escaped this brush with a flying tanker car, a tornado bore down on Mentor, Minn.
The nasty twister headed straight for Wes's gas station, where Wes had just arrived to check in with his daughter Heidi who was holding down the fort so Wes could have his 58th birthday off.
The next evening, ABC's national news once again told a miraculous story: As the gas station exploded from the force of the tornado, Wes saved his daughter Heidi by shielding her from the razor-sharp shrapnel.
But unlike 1976, this time Wes did not escape unhurt. The whirling shards of his business took his life.
Had he lived, Wes Michaels likely would greet all this hero business with a derisive snort.
But Wes died a true hero, a working man of the first class who did his duty though it cost him his life.
As his townspeople, our hearts ache with both sadness and pride.