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Fire chief says brothers saved man's life

Zack Houle (left) at the scene of the fire Wednesday in Merrifield. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)1 / 3
Zack Houle (left) at the scene of the fire Wednesday in Merrifield. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)2 / 3
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The selfless and heroic efforts of two brothers, who pulled a Merrifield man to safety in a house fire, saved his life, Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes said Thursday.

"The two people who pulled him to safety certainly saved his life," Holmes said of the heroic efforts of the brothers. "The homeowner was injured to a point where he couldn't move or get up. He certainly would have been overcome by the intensity of the flames. They deserve a lot of recognition and thanks for everything they did. They took the time to stop and do something to help someone."

Brothers Zack and Brady Houle were home Wednesday afternoon when they heard their neighbor's house in Merrifield was on fire. They ran to the house where they found their neighbor lying on the driveway crying for help. The brothers pulled the homeowner to safety.

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

"This is the second time in a week where two passers-by made a significant difference in someone's life by stopping and caring for people to make sure they are alright," Holmes said. "That is pretty amazing."

On Sunday, four people escaped injuries and firefighters saved a dog from a fast-moving house fire reported about 2 a.m. In that instance, two passers-by saw the Baxter home was on fire, stopped and knocked on windows and the door to alert the home's occupants.

On Wednesday, the house fire 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 the Nisswa Fire Department was called for mutual aid. A Mission firefighter, who happened to be in the area, also responded. About 35 firefighters total assisted on scene.

Holmes said it appears the homeowner, Vernon Tapelt, was backing his vehicle in the garage when the vehicle was having mechanical issues. The vehicle hit something in the garage.

"There were some gas cans in there which ignited the fire and that is why there was so much intensity," Holmes said. "There was no explosion, but with all the fuel and gas inside the garage, it took off so fast."

Firefighters were on scene until about 7:40 p.m. There was a lot of overhaul to make sure the fire was completely out. Holmes said the fire got into the attic and moved through the entire structure.

The structure was a total loss, the fire department reported. The estimated value of the property is $240,000, which includes the contents, the fire chief said. State Fire Marshal Mark Germain is investigating the cause of the fire, which is not considered suspicious.

The American Red Cross was called to assist the homeowners.

Zack Houle got off work at 3 p.m. at Cub Foods in northeast Brainerd. He drove home on the 10000 block of East Shore Drive in 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."

Then Zack and his brother ran to help Vernon Tapelt.