‘A miracle’ — Couple recovering after being severely injured in boiler explosion
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POCATELLO — It took a minute for Norman Wright to register why he was on the ground.
It was the afternoon of March 21, and a massive explosion had just blown Norman through a door and into a hallway inside the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Garfield Avenue in Old Town Pocatello.
“I was lying on the floor, and I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute. What the heck just happened?’” Norman said from his home in American Falls with his wife, Kathy Wright, just two weeks after the accident.
Norman glanced back into the boiler room — the room he was just flung from — to see flames shooting out from where the boiler used to be.
“I thought, ‘Why the explosion?’” Norman said.
As it turns out, the church’s old boiler — an appliance that hadn’t been used in over 10 years — still had natural gas being fed to it. When Norman went to work cleaning out the boiler room, there was little reason to assume the boiler was anything more than just an obsolete hunk of metal taking up space. The church had installed a forced-air heating system a decade ago.
But when Norman began disconnecting hoses, the gas began to leak. And when he used a grinder to sever a conduit, a spark flew, igniting the gas.
“I made the assumption this hadn’t been used in 10 years and was turned off,” Norman said. “Wrong assumption, wasn’t it?”
Another thought — a sinking, terrifying feeling — entered Norman’s mind.
“I thought, ‘Well what happened to my wife?’” he said.
It took a while to find Kathy. She was eventually located under a heavy, exterior steel door on the concrete steps outside the boiler room. The back of her head was bleeding and there was blood in her mouth.
Kathy wasn’t in the boiler room when the blast happened. She was standing outside. But when the boiler erupted, the door blew off its hinges, collided with Kathy and sent her crashing onto the steps.
Shortly after Kathy was found, the Pocatello Fire Department was on the scene. Firefighters shut off the gas and extinguished the blaze, and Norman and Kathy were loaded into ambulances and taken to Portneuf Medical Center. They were put into emergency helicopters and flown to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City.
The Wright couple’s injuries were extensive, and Kathy’s were considered to possibly be life-threatening. Both, however, returned home sooner than expected. Norman spent three days in the hospital, while Kathy remained there for eight days.
Norman had second-degree superficial burns on both his forearms and parts of his face and ears. Kathy had burns on her right arm and needed surgery to remove shrapnel from her left arm. When she fell to the concrete steps, she sustained an injury to the part of her brain that affects her swallowing. Though she’s home, she’s in a hospital bed and is hooked up to a feeding tube. She requires a speech therapist, which will eventually enable her swallow again.
While the explosion injured both Norman and Kathy, their recovery is nothing short of miraculous, and they believe God has a hand in it.
“There is just no way that I or someone else could’ve survived that,” Norman said. “… I think that sometimes, it just isn’t our time. … I’m thinking there’s still somebody higher up that’s got a plan.
“Just being alive is probably close enough to being a miracle as you can get.”
Norman acknowledges he made the wrong assumption about the boiler. And he hopes his experience serves as a lesson to anyone else who faces a similar situation. He wonders how many other old, unused appliances are still connected to utilities.
“I had not even the remotest idea in the world that it was still hooked up to gas,” Norman said. “If I ever thought about it, I’d have never touched it with a 10-foot pole.”
While the Wrights recover, their church — which they’ve been a part of for 17 years — is recovering, too. The explosion caused significant damage throughout the building, which was built in 1904.
The concussion of the blast caused several doors throughout the church to be knocked out of their frames and shredded. Light fixtures fell to the floor and shattered. The glass of the front sanctuary door cracked. Norman also says the church has some electrical and structural issues.
While the extent of the damage is assessed and repairs are made, the church’s congregation is using a different building right next door at 351 N. Garfield Ave.
Though Norman doesn’t think the church will be available for another couple of months, he knows his church is strong. He knows that, like him and his wife, it will be restored.
“Through God’s help, my wife and I are alive and kicking — sometimes not kicking very hard, but kicking,” Norman said. “ And by gosh, our church is going to survive, and it’s kicking, too.”
This article was originally published in the Idaho State Journal. It is used here with permission.