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Ryan Johnson, Published July 19 2013

Ex-Moorhead hockey coach Pete Cullen credited with saving 10 others in house fire

LAKE PARK, Minn. – Richard Olson said there’s no doubt former Moorhead High School boys hockey coach Pete Cullen saved the lives of 10 people during an early morning house fire near here on July 5.

Olson confirmed Friday that Cullen, who resigned from his job June 26 after a complaint filed with district officials revealed a history of being investigated by police for domestic assault, was the house guest who woke up and noticed the fire that broke out shortly after 5 a.m.

Cullen, the boyfriend of one of Olson’s nieces who was spending the night there, woke up another niece’s boyfriend and the two then helped get the nine others in the house out in time.

Olson said the former hockey coach didn’t want to get attention for this, but said he “certainly” was crucial in preventing the blaze from becoming a fatal fire.

“The fact is if he wouldn’t have woke up, there would’ve been 11 dead people,” he said.

Cullen told The Forum he’s not the only one to credit. He said just a minute or two longer and the people in the house might not have made it out safely, and said it was lucky that everyone made “the right choice at the right time” in a dangerous situation.

“It was miraculous,” he said. “I don’t want to claim any hero status by any means, but the truth of the matter is if I wouldn’t have woke up, we might not be here.”

‘One hell of a month’

Cullen said everything happened so quickly, he still has a hard time explaining the situation.

“Until you’re actually in it, you’ll never really understand how quick it can go,” he said. “In one instant, it was, ‘Oh, we’ve got a little fire, maybe we can put it out,’ to within a minute or two to, ‘We’ve got to get out of this house to save our own lives.’ ”

Cullen said he just remembers waking up from a dead sleep, so startled that he “almost literally jumped out of the chair,” but he still doesn’t know what made him wake up. He turned and saw a fire in the kitchen, and he began waking people up before trying to fight the fire with water from a hose at the sink.

“That didn’t go so well,” he said.

Smoke began filling the main floor, he said, and people started heading downstairs to leave through the walk-out basement.

He said Olson, who was sleeping in his bedroom and came out only in his underwear, went back to the room to put on pants and a shirt. But when he tried to walk back down the hallway, it was full of smoke – forcing Olson to make a self-described “not graceful” exit through the bedroom window.

Cullen said he realized he was still in the house while everyone else was getting out. He went halfway down the hallway through the smoke, finding another door to get to safety.

Once outside, he said he immediately grabbed the garden hose and tried to fight the fire that had spread to the front step.

“The whole time, I was just thinking, ‘If I can keep it at bay for another minute or two, maybe everybody will get out. Maybe we’ll save all the animals. Maybe the fire department will get there soon enough that we can salvage some of it,’ ” he said.

But the little garden hose was no match against the growing fire, Cullen said, and the people who fled the house instead switched their attention to the handful of vehicles parked close to the house.

He said the keys for all the cars were inside the house. Barring any other options, the group that didn’t have shoes on their feet pushed the cars out of the way down a dirt road as the flames grew close.

The smoke alarms eventually sounded their warning, but Cullen said that didn’t happen until everyone had evacuated.

Olson said he’s still considering his options after the fire destroyed his home and belongings, killing two of his three dogs. The community’s been “really supportive” and has helped get the family back on their feet, he said.

The state fire marshal’s office investigated the incident, but couldn’t determine what caused the fire, Olson said.

Cullen said he’s spent the past two weeks thinking about how lucky everyone was to have escaped.

He said it’s taught him how important it is for every family to have a plan in case of a fire – something they didn’t have at the Lake Park house.

Cullen said the fire was an unexpected twist to “one hell of a month” he’s gone through after being “put through the wringer” by a June 28 Forum article and other local media coverage of his personal life.

An anonymous complaint was sent to Moorhead district officials last month saying Cullen was questioned by police several times following 911 domestic disturbance calls made by his girlfriend.

Records obtained by The Forum show Moorhead police responded to five such calls since 2008 after Cullen’s girlfriend reported an argument or physical fight, most recently on June 14. One of those calls in 2008 resulted in a criminal charge that was dropped before the trial because a witness couldn’t be found.

“I had my life really flipped upside down, and then to go through a moment like this, I’m just thankful to have my life and everybody else’s,” Cullen said Friday.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587