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Tom Johnson of Bemidji rescued Cathy Kinnaman from her burning home Sunday afternoon. Kinnaman was able to call her son's dog, Bricks, out of the house, but a little terrier, Radar, ran inside and died. Submitted photo

Fire rescue: Bemidji man saves woman from burning house

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Two minutes - that's the margin Bemidji emergency medical technician and former firefighter Tom Johnson estimates between the life and death of a Leader, Minn., woman.

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Early Sunday afternoon, Johnson was riding his Harley-Davidson Electra Glide motorcycle north on state Highway 64 near Leader when he saw smoke and flames coming from a house. Johnson pulled up to the burning building to see if anyone was inside.

"I kicked the door open," Johnson said. "It was so hot I couldn't stand up. The door handle was smoking hot."

He found Cathy Kinnaman in a bedroom. She is a nurse in the Staples Lakewood System Emergency Room and was sleeping off a 12-hour night shift in preparation for another 12-hour shift starting Sunday evening.

"He's in my room saying 'You got to get out,' and I was saying 'Get out of my room,'" Kinnaman said.

Johnson was able to convince Kinnaman of the danger and escorted her out of the house. She said as she left, she saw floor-to-ceiling flames in the kitchen.

Johnson asked Kinnaman if anyone else was in the house.

"She said, 'I don't know if my husband is here or not - if he is he's upstairs,'" he recalled. "But the stairs were already gone."

"It was just a godsend that he was there," Kinnaman said. "My 14-year-old son said, 'This is like a story. The guy who rescued you was an angel, and don't forget that, Mom.'"

As it happened, her husband, Tim, and sons, Matthew, 26, Lucas, 14, and Johnny, 10, had gone shopping for groceries to make her a special Mother's Day dinner. Their other son, Marcus, 21, is serving in Iraq and learned of the fire and rescue online via Facebook.

With Kinnaman safely out of the burning building, Johnson ran around to shut off the propane tank. He managed to drag away a four-wheeler and lawn mower out of harm's way. Then he asked Kinnaman where the keys to the motor home were. She explained where the key hook was inside the vehicle, and he saved the motor home, too.

"I drove that sucker across the pasture," Johnson said. "The RV was actually smoking and melting."

So, the Kinnamans are now camping in their RV, eating food and using supplies provided by neighbors. Heart and Hands Ministry in Motley, Minn., donated clothing.

Johnson had been motorcycle riding with friends in southern Wisconsin Sunday morning, but decided to leave the group and head home to Bemidji earlier than originally planned.

"Talk about the right place at the right time," Johnson said. "It was a pretty wild day. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind another two minutes and she would be dead."

Cass County Sheriff Randy Fisher said the initial call on the fire came in from a passerby at 12:49 p.m. Sunday. He said by the time the Motley Fire Department arrived at about 1 p.m., the garage, where the fire apparently started, and house were completely engulfed in flames. The Staples Ambulance also responded and treated Kinnaman for minor smoke inhalation, and Cass County Deputy Tony Cyr arrived on the scene.

Fisher said Kinnaman was fortunate that someone with Johnson's training was driving by at the critical moment.

"If he hadn't been there, I would have just kept on sleeping," Kinnaman said. "He definitely saved my life."

Kinnaman said she called her husband on his cell phone when she was safely outside with Matthew's dog, Bricks, but the little terrier, Radar, who had a habit of hiding under beds when he was frightened, ran inside and died.

"At one point, (Johnson) was going to run in, but I was worried about the gas," Kinnaman said. "My husband heard me yell (on the phone), 'Please, please, don't go in.'"

"He showed up just after I got the RV out of the way," Johnson said of Tim Kinnaman. "He shook my hand and said, 'God bless you.' He said everything in the house is just stuff."

"I hope I have a chance to say thank you to that young man," Kinnaman said. "He was our angel."

Fisher said Johnson will receive a letter of thanks from the Cass County Sheriff's Office.

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