A 71-year-old man died from his injuries and his daughter suffered severe burns after a catastrophic house fire the night of July 5 in the Palmer Lake neighborhood.
Howard Johnson and his daughter, Barbara Chase, were asleep in their mobile home when the fire started right before 11 p.m. Chase awoke to the smell of burning plastic and was able to get out through her bedroom window, suffering burns across her right arm and on her face along the way. She immediately ran to the other side of the home to help her dad, who was trying to escape out his bedroom window while he was covered in flames.
Chase pulled Johnson out and away from the fire before she gathered enough strength to flag down a passing car to call for help. Chase said her father was burned from head to toe. He was still able to communicate nonverbally but was having difficulty breathing.
When the two had turned in that evening, Johnson said to his daughter what he said every night: “Good night, I love you, and God bless your dreams.”
His nightly wish turned out to be his last words.
Neighbors called 911 after hearing and feeling multiple explosions caused by oxygen tanks in the home overheating. It generally takes constant temperatures above 125 degrees to cause that. Chase said she and her dad were already out of the home when the explosions began.
“The two homeowners were found at the road with severe burns when incident command arrived,” said KPFD Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit. “Airlift was immediately called and as the victims were attended to we worked to keep the fire from spreading.”
Johnson was flown to Harborview Medical Center where he died of his injuries the following day. Chase was taken to Tacoma General Hospital and later transferred to Harborview because of the severity of her burns. She was released after a few days and is recovering with friends. Their two dogs and a cat died in the fire.
Pierce County Fire Marshall Ken Rice declared the fire accidental, and the home a total loss. It started outside on the family’s wooden deck where two upright freezers were plugged into one receptacle. Rice said it was such a devastating fire that investigators couldn’t determine if the cause was the receptacle, an electrical short in the cord, or an overheated compressor motor in one of the freezers. He believes the flames dipped below the deck and quickly spread to the lower part of the home.
Rice said that most freezers aren’t made for outdoor use and homeowners should follow manufacturer recommendations for any appliances. He added that if people feel the need to put an appliance outside, prop it up on cinder blocks or paver stones. If it’s against or near a building, put fire-resistant material like sheetrock behind the appliance.
The community is rallying around Chase and mourning the loss of a man they say was a pillar in the community.
A GoFundMe was set up by Lakebay Community Church pastor and family friend Dan Whitmarsh to help Chase with upcoming expenses. In less than a week the fundraiser was more than halfway to its goal of $10,000. The El Sombrero Restaurant of Key Center donated 25% of its July 13 food sales directly to Chase.
“I’m overwhelmed with what everyone is doing,” she said. “I know my dad would be really shy and humbled by all this.”
Whitmarsh said Johnson was an active member of many church communities on the KP and donated time to many efforts in the area.
Among his contributions over the years: running a food bank to provide meals and groceries to low-income families and widows, picking up day-old bread from Panera Bread and delivering it to those in need, driving homeless people to the local mission, and praying for 10 minutes in each church parking lot every Friday night.
“He did everything for everyone else. He’d pray for them, feed them, and clothe them,” Chase said. “He never thought about himself.”
Johnson is perhaps best known for providing a nonjudgmental ear for those in the community with addiction issues. Whitmarsh said Johnson was a recovering alcoholic who hadn’t had a drink in 30 years. While there are organizations that treat addicts who come to them, Johnson, according to Whitmarsh, had a unique ability to seek out those who needed help.
“The KP has all sorts of pockets where it’s easy to fall through the cracks,” he said. “What this area will miss is his ability to find and connect with people who are hidden or passed over.”
A memorial service for Johnson was held July 29 at Lakebay Community Church, 11 Cornwall Road SW, in Lakebay.
The GoFundMe for Chase runs through August at www.gofundme.com.
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