Investigator: Smoking on oxygen started truck fire at Saint Elizabeth

2013-11-14T19:34:00Z 2014-01-06T11:12:53Z Investigator: Smoking on oxygen started truck fire at Saint ElizabethBy NICHOLAS BERGIN / Lincoln Journal Star

A Lincoln man who was pulled from his burning truck on Wednesday started the fire by smoking while using supplement oxygen, an investigator says.

“This accident was totally avoidable,” city Fire Inspector Chuck Schweitzer said. “You have to be very cautious when using oxygen, and certainly you should not be smoking around oxygen.”

Oxygen is an accelerant, Schweitzer said. It makes things burn much faster.

Michael Engnell, 72, pulled his Ford Ranger off 70th Street onto the main drive in front of Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center — home of the city's main burn unit — at about 2 p.m.

Tim Henry and his fiancée, Tiffany Hardison, were leaving at the time. They saw smoke coming from the pickup and a frantic woman running toward it.

Henry ran to help while Hardison called 911. There was fire in the passenger side, the door was hot and Engnell was slumped over unconscious. Henry and the woman — he didn’t get her name — dragged Engnell from the truck and to the grass.

Engnell’s face was burned and his clothes smoldered, so they stripped off his jacket and a red pinstripe shirt.

Smoke also attracted the attention of staff from Saint Elizabeth and the Nebraska Surgery Center, who ran to help.

On the third floor of Saint Elizabeth, Dr. Bradette Varilek had just sat down to fill out billing paperwork when she spotted dark smoke. She checked a second window to get a better look, then bolted down the stairs and outside along with her office-mate, Sean Hansen.

She went to Engnell's side, listened to his heart and lungs, and heard wheezing. Moments later he was on a gurney and in an ambulance. He was rushed to the emergency room then to the hospital’s burn unit.

Lincoln police said Engnell’s injuries were life threatening, and he remained in critical condition Thursday.

It's unclear where Engnell was destined or whether he intentionally pulled into the hospital's driveway. Lincoln Fire and Rescue quickly extinguished the fire, except for some burning fuel which firefighters kept under control until it went out.

Fire and Rescue Capt. Ron Trouba called Henry and the woman who helped pull Engnell from the truck heroes.

Henry, a construction worker who had taken the day off work to get tests done at the hospital, said the only thing going through his head at the time was "get him out."

"We help each other out; it’s as simple as that,” Henry said. “Nobody should get burned alive.”

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