By Pete Soyer
The smell of smoke hangs in the air around the duplex on Pike Street. Walking inside is like entering a cave, with wallpaper hanging from the ceiling like stalactites and pieces of wood and carpet crunching underfoot like gravel.
The residence caught fire after it was struck by lightning during a fierce storm Thursday night.
Vern and Hazel Olson lived in one half of the duplex and Roy and Joyce Olson lived in the burned half. Vern and Roy are brothers and Hazel and Joyce are sisters. All are now staying in a hotel.
Vern said he was watching television about 9:50 p.m. when the lightning struck. He said he heard "a very very loud bang. I looked out the door and thought Man, that sure struck close.'"
After looking outside and not seeing any smoke or fire, Vern went back to watching television.
In about two or three minutes, Joyce called Vern and said her half of the house had been struck. She said the light in her entryway went out and she saw a bright flash outside her front door. Vern told her he would be right over. Joyce went to check the lights in the bathroom to see if they were still working.
When Joyce got back to the living room, the entire entryway was engulfed in flames, Vern said.
Joyce started banging on the wall of Vern and Hazel's home and ran out the side door yelling, "The place is on fire," Vern said.
Vern went around to the front of Ron and Joyce's home and opened the front door. "The minute I opened the door the flash came out and got my face," Vern said.
He went back to his back door and yelled in to Hazel to call the fire department.
Vern then went to the garage to get a fire extinguisher, but he said he couldn't get close enough to the flames to use it. He grabbed the garden hose, but water was just dribbling out of it, he said.
"The heat in the closet melted the copper joints and the end cap blew off so there was no pressure for the hose," he said.
The fire department received the call at 9:57 p.m. and two ambulances and two fire trucks came to the scene at 9:59 p.m.
"They were very proficient. Real high regards for them," Vern said.
The ambulance crew put Joyce in an ambulance to treat her for possible smoke inhalation while Vern ran to the garage to shut off the natural gas. A member of the ambulance crew told Vern he had some blood on his nose and he needed to go the hospital.
Vern said he was going to go back and show the firefighters where the water was, but the ambulance crew said the firefighters could handle it on their own and took Vern to the hospital. He also was checked for smoke inhalation.
"I stayed overnight and was released at 8:35 a.m. to get Hazel to a hair appointment," Vern said. He said he is going back to the doctor today for a follow-up.
Vern and Hazel are looking for an apartment to stay in for three months while the smoke damage in their home is repaired. Hazel said they have lived there for 37 years and they may move out completely.
Roy and Joyce's side of the duplex is dark and sunlight can't get through the blackened windows. Pictures and frames are charred and wallpaper is peeling off in black pieces. Vern pointed out the misshapen television and floor fan in the living room. Both melted in the heat. Lamp shades melted and fell down around the lamps on the end tables. All the light bulbs either burst or turned black.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said the fire department estimates the loss at $30,000.
Roy was at work when the fire started and he thought getting a call from Hazel that night was odd.
"Twenty-five minutes before, I called my wife and asked her how her and the dog were doing in the storm and she said fine," Roy said.
He said the fire and the loss are devastating. The washer and dryer, deep freezer and some items from upstairs are salvageable. "All the stuff in the living room pretty much had it," he said.
He said he and Joyce are looking for another place and people all over Havre have been very sympathetic.
"Havre... It's the people. You've probably heard that and it's true," Roy said.