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Paula Quam, Published October 12 2013

DL explosion victim, wife talk of pain, recovery

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – When Detroit Lakes High School sweethearts Aaron and Tess Kalberer got married this summer, they vowed to love each other “in sickness and in health.”

That vow came in handy two months later, when Aaron was smack dab in the middle of an exploding workshop.

On Aug. 28, Aaron Kalberer was in his father’s shop on Pearl Lake changing a fuel pump on his pickup.

His new bride, Tess, was just coming off the lake to see if she could help him.

“I walked around the car, and he said, ‘I’m almost done,’ ” Tess said, “and as he did he must have bumped something.”

That something was the fuel tank.

“It started dumping gas all over the floor,” said Aaron, who along with Tess began trying to contain it.

It didn’t take long for Tess to start getting a headache from the fumes.

“So, I opened up one of the garage doors because I don’t think he noticed how fumy it was in there,” she said.

She then took a few steps out of the shop.

Just as she was doing so, Aaron grabbed the cord to the battery charger that he noticed was still plugged in.

“When I unplugged the charger from the extension cord, I immediately saw flames shoot up towards my face, and I turned around and the whole shop was up in flames.”

The flames grazed Tess’s shin and foot, but her husband’s screams are what she remembers the most.

“It was scary; he was screaming, but I couldn’t see him,” she said.

“I was in there for probably five to six seconds,” Aaron said, adding that the pain was excruciating and immediate.

“As soon as I saw him, I began yelling at him to stop, drop and roll,” Tess said.

Not understanding just how hurt he was, Aaron’s adrenaline had him running to the lake to cool his skin down.

A mother’s scare

Aaron’s mother, Harrietta Kalberer, was on her way home when a police car passed her with its lights on.

“Then, my younger son, Ross, called and he was yelling – I couldn’t understand him,” Harrietta said. “All I heard was ‘explosion’ and ‘fire’ and ‘Aaron,’ ” she said, realizing the emergency response was for her family.

Nobody realized just how severe Aaron’s injuries were.

“It just looked like he had a bad sunburn,” Harrietta said.

But the cool lake water soon made Aaron’s skin blister and worse.

“His skin started falling off,” Tess said.

A neighbor began wrapping one of Aaron’s legs before the ambulance arrived to take him to St. Mary’s emergency room in Detroit Lakes.

It wasn’t long after he arrived in the ER, that doctors determined he should be transferred to the intensive care unit at the Hennepin County Burn Unit, in the Twin Cities.

Many what-ifs

“It didn’t really hit me until I saw him there all wrapped up in the bed,” Tess said. “It was really overwhelming, and it really shocked me into reality.”

The newlywed couple began pondering all of the things that could have meant the difference between life and death.

What if Tess hadn’t opened the garage door just moments before the explosion? What if Aaron hadn’t taken his contacts out right before the incident?

“My doctor says they would have melted into my eyes,” Aaron said.

He also wasn’t wearing his usual polyester shorts that would have burned into his thighs.

“And that’s a good thing because that’s where they took my skin grafts from,” he said, adding that those surgeries were the most pain he’d ever experienced in his life.

After 3½ weeks, Aaron left the Hennepin Burn Unit.

He credits his quick recovery to his attitude and the attitude of friends and family.

“My dad always likes to say, ‘Everyone is dealt a bad hand in life, but it’s all about how you play your cards.’ You can make a losing hand a winner depending on how you play them.”