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Brothers drag homeowner after house explodes in Minn.

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Firefighters work to put out a house fire Wednesday in Merrifield. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service2 / 7
A firefighter straddles a hose during the effort to extinguish a house fire Wednesday near Merrifield. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service3 / 7
Firefighters hose down the garage of a structure during a fire Wednesday near Merrifield. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service4 / 7
Firefighters work to put out a house fire Wednesday in Merrifield. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service5 / 7
One side of the house appeared almost normal except for firefighters on the porch, but the other side was completely destroyed. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service6 / 7
A house burns Wednesday near Merrifield. The smoke could be seen from nearby County Road 3. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service7 / 7

MERRIFIELD, Minn. — Zack and Brady Houle sprang into action Wednesday afternoon when they heard their neighbor's house was on fire—running to the house, they found their neighbor lying on the driveway crying for help.

"We could hear him crying 'Help me, help me,' it was nonstop," Zack Houle said as dozens of firefighters from three fire departments worked on extinguishing the fire May 17 at the house south of Merrifield.

"Our neighbor was on his side and on his back and he said 'My phone won't work, my phone won't work.' Brady was already calling 911. We picked him up. He was conscious, but he got hurt somehow ... He was lying about 20 feet from his house just outside the pavement to his garage ... We got our shoulders around him and we dragged him ... out here on the road and got him to safety in case there would be another explosion."

The Merrifield man was taken by North Memorial Ambulance to Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center for unknown injuries.

Everything happened so fast.

Zack Houle got off of work at 3 p.m. at Cub Foods in northeast Brainerd. He drove home to Merrifield and was passing the neighbor's house around 3:15 p.m.

"My neighbor was checking his mail and we waved and everything was all fine," Houle said. "I went home for like two minutes and was talking to my younger brother and then my girlfriend called me and said there is a lot of smoke coming out of your neighbor's house. I got up and looked out the kitchen window and I saw black smoke pouring out everything."

The call came into the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office 911 Dispatch at 3:22 p.m. as a possible house explosion. The Brainerd Fire Department was paged and Nisswa and Mission fire crews also were called for mutual aid.

Fire trucks and emergency responders lined East Shore Drive as fire crews worked to extinguish the fire; as a few neighbors stood by watching, including the Houle brothers' parents, Ron and Darlene Houle.

Neighbor Elizabeth Blythe and her husband James were also watching the situation. Blythe said she was outside pulling weeds when she heard voices shouting, and then sirens.

"I went to the neighbor's porch, and it was all flames, and trees bursting into flames," she said.

Huge clouds of smoke billowed from the blaze as the wind shifted, making the flames shoot from the ceiling as the fire received more oxygen. One side of the house appeared almost normal, other than firefighters standing on the porch. The side facing the road, however, was devastated.

While on scene, Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes said it appears the fire started from either a possible explosion or from the man's car running into the garage. State Fire Marshal Mark Germain, who happened to be in the area, was on scene and will assist Brainerd with investigating the cause of the fire.

According to the Crow Wing County detailed tax parcel report, the taxpayer name on the property is Vernon and Olivia Tapelt. The estimated building value is $147,000.

The Houles said Vernon's wife was gone at the time of the fire and was safe. She arrived on scene later.

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