FAIRBANKS – A Fairbanks woman badly burned in a propane explosion last month made it from 40 Mile Steese Highway to a Seattle hospital room with help from a passing motorist, a volunteer fire department and a medical evacuation crew.
Nikki Lopez was taken to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center in time to save her eyes. Doctors hope the use of her arms also will be spared, said her husband, Tony Lopez, who was at her bedside Tuesday night in Seattle.
“It’s a shame to see a such a beautiful young woman go through this,” he said. “I’m just so grateful to where we live that Wade (the motorist who helped) happened to be there, because if it wasn’t for him I probably would have lost her.”
Lopez was at work at the time of the fire, but his wife gave him a description of the explosion.
As he understands it, about 10 a.m. Oct. 23 his wife was trying to light the propane heater when it exploded and caught her on fire. She struggled with a fire extinguisher and was not immediately able to put out the flames on her or get out the door. The propane tank that exploded was not full, and she was able to leave before the fire spread to a second tank that was full or to her husband’s ammunition.
“She finally got the back door open, got out and went to the street screaming for help. By then, the fire hit the other propane tank that was full and exploded the house, just leveled it,” Tony Lopez said. “I had a couple thousand rounds and the bullets were flying while she (was) running up and down the road screaming for a ride.”
A miner driving down the Steese Highway saw her and drove her to Long Creek Trading Post, the first telephone on the Steese Highway. Lopez is a regular customer there, but owner Paul Potvin said he did not recognize her when she came in because of major burns on her upper body. He called 911, and an ambulance from the Steese Volunteer Fire Department met them on the way into Fairbanks. From Fairbanks, she was flown to Seattle, where surgeons began operating on her eyes not long after she arrived, her husband said.
The Lopezes were married on Valentine’s Day this year. They are active in planning the Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow, an annual celebration of different Native groups. Friends, including several who know them through the powwow, are planning a fundraiser for the family Nov. 30.
The cabin in which the Lopezes were living was destroyed in the fire. Cabin owner Mary White, a friend of theirs who was letting them stay at the cabin, already had traumatic associations with fire, Tony Lopez said. White was the passenger on a school bus in 2009 that caught fire after a collision on Chena Hot Springs Road. She was not at the cabin at the time of the Oct. 23 explosion.
The cabin is outside local fire service areas. The fire has not been investigated by the state fire marshal’s office, which had not been notified of the explosion, said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.
Tony Lopez said he does not know why the propane tank exploded. His best guess was a defective seal.
For more information about the fundraiser, call family friend Benno Cleveland, who is helping to organize it, at 799-0406.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.