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Dave Roepke, Published April 14 2010

‘He stood between the devil and my son’

The father of the 12-year-old boy who survived a gas-fueled explosion Sunday in Moorhead knows that Dane Tvedt never made it to his son’s side.

But he still sees Tvedt’s rush toward the blast and his sudden and mysterious death as a sacrifice.

“It’s like he stood between the devil and my son,” said Bill Smith, the boy’s father. “This was a thing of the spirit. Dane gave his life to save my son’s.”

Devan Vanbrunt, Smith’s son, is recovering at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, and doctors think he’ll be there for roughly six weeks, Smith said.

A provisional autopsy report Moorhead police received Tuesday didn’t shed any light on what killed the 21-year-old Tvedt, who died after collapsing while he ran to Smith’s yard when Vanbrunt ignited an accidental explosion.

Smith hailed Tvedt and his family as heroes, as they joined Dane in racing toward the scene of the fiery blast at 909 9th St. N.

“They ran into that fire knowing they could burn up themselves,” Smith said. “They lost a son, and I’ve still got mine.”

About 40 percent of Vanbrunt’s body has severe burns, the worst of them on his right arm and thigh. It does appear he won’t have much scarring on his face, Smith said. Doctors believe he’ll need skin grafts.

The boy has told his parents he’s in no pain, but his father suspects he’s just saying that to cheer up his parents. Doctors have kept him on painkillers and in a mild coma, his father said.

Vanbrunt started the explosion just before 8 p.m. when he tried to pour gasoline on a lit charcoal grill, something Smith said he’s often warned him against.

Smith was helping tear down a neighbor’s sandbag wall when he heard a loud crack like a stick of dynamite blowing up. When he saw the fireball in his yard, he figured his house was ablaze. Only later did he realize that the fireball was his boy engulfed in flames.

“I didn’t even recognize it was him,” Smith said. “I thought I’d lost my family.”

Vanbrunt’s mom, Robyn Smith, threw herself on the boy to put out the fire and then doused him with water in the kitchen before he tried to cool his melting skin in a cold shower.

The Tvedts were already on the scene by the time Smith made it back to his property, he said.

“I jumped right over him,” Smith said of Dane Tvedt. “I thought he would be fine.”

Smith said he’d shared a couple beers with Tvedt the night before, enjoying the weather on the porch at Tvedt’s home around the corner from Smith’s. The next day, he saw him take his last breaths.

Tvedt fell down as he ran to the scene of the explosion, but his death was not caused by injuries from the fall, said Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson.

Jacobson said the initial autopsy results received on Tuesday from the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office in St. Paul did not determine a cause or manner of death and more testing will be required.

A full autopsy report will not likely be complete for a few months, Jacobson said.

Moorhead Fire Marshal Rich Duysen was confident in saying Tvedt suffered from cardiac arrest on the scene, Jacobson said, but that doesn’t explain what caused his heart to stop.

“We don’t have that answer,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535