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Emily Welker, Published March 15 2013

‘I thought I was going to die,' says woman trapped on I-29 in burning car

FARGO – When he walked into work at Fargo’s Marco Inc., just in time at 9 a.m. Friday, the first thing co-workers asked Jonathan Magnell about was the smell of burning rubber.

“What have you been doing all morning?” they wanted to know.

“Oh, just pulling someone out of a burning car,” he said.

Magnell came upon the fiery scene on his regular morning commute Friday. Marjorie Branden, 50, of Grandin, had noticed her 2001 Buick Park Avenue was on fire, pulled off onto the shoulder and then realized she couldn’t get out.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said in an interview Friday.

Branden was going south on Interstate 29 about 7:45 a.m. when she noticed flames coming from the rear doors of the Buick, and, thinking it must be an electrical issue, pulled over.

“I couldn’t get the doors open. I tried kicking in the window,” she said. “Then I pulled my coat over my head and just waited.”

Magnell was on his way to work from his home in Harwood when he saw the black smoke coming from a car along the shoulder of

I-29 about a half-mile north of 19th Avenue North. At first, he didn’t see anyone. Then he saw someone running up with a hammer.

“He smashed the windows, and flames 2 or 3 feet came shooting out,” Magnell recalled later in an interview Friday.

The next thing Branden heard was the sound of the glass breaking. She stuck her arm out of the window.

Magnell saw the arm and realized there was a person inside the Buick.

“I sure wasn’t going to let anyone die,” he said.

Magnell reached into the flames and tried to unlock the door from the inside, the beginning of what turned out to be a lengthy wrestling match with the vehicle, its locks and the seat belt, which had wrapped around the victim inside – all while the car was burning around them.

He couldn’t get the door handle open and didn’t have his knife on him. He called out to a friend of his who had also pulled over to help, asking him to grab the knife from Magnell’s car.

Magnell cut the seat belt wrapped around the victim’s foot and carried her to safety, asking her if there was anyone else in the car, Branden said.

“I said, ‘Can you hear me, can you hear me?’ ” Magnell recalled, but he didn’t hear her respond.

The first words Magnell heard from Branden were, “My purse is in there.”

“I told her not to worry about her purse,” Magnell said, though he was relieved she was well enough to worry.

The Fargo Fire Department put out the fire, according to Capt. Bryan Niewind of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. The cause of the fire is as yet undetermined.

Branden and her husband, Randy, said they had bought it a few months ago.

“The car didn’t give us any warning signs,” her husband said Friday.

Magnell said Branden had burns on her hand, with skin melting off. The ambulance arrived soon after he helped free her, and Magnell, who had a 9 a.m. commitment to keep at work, left as soon as she was put in the ambulance.

She was taken to Essentia Health and released later Friday morning with second-degree burns and smoke inhalation. But in her own words, she’s doing “good, considering what it could have been.” She has a few leg bruises she figures were caused by wrangling with the seat belt.

“Whatever hurts, I’m fine with that. I am fine, I’m good. I’m here!” she said.

After the accident, she went to look at her vehicle, which was entirely burned – right down to a roll of dimes in her purse that were melted together.

Branden has talked with two of the other men who helped in her rescue, and she said she can’t thank them all enough. But she hadn’t talked to Magnell yet by early Friday evening.

Magnell attributed his response to learning self-sufficiency by being raised on a farm near Oklee, Minn. But he also said anyone would have done the same, and he’s kind of embarrassed by the attention.

“I don’t think it’s a hero situation,” he said.

And Magnell was still hoping to get a chance to reach out to Branden.

“My goal is to get to her, check on her and see how she’s doing,” he said.

Maybe after work.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541