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Burned woman recovering after propane explosion

Helen Newberry was born in her parents’ home in southwest Bibb County more than 73 years ago. Last month, she nearly died there when propane gas exploded as she lit her heater.

“I just try not to think about it,” Newberry said while recuperating from burns at her north Macon condominium.

The old farm house on Newberry Road was leveled in the Oct. 18 blast. All her family furniture and photographs were lost in the blaze that reduced the building to rubble and ash.

Newberry burned her face and hands and was airlifted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta for treatment.

“I wasn’t hurting in any way except for my left hand,” said Newberry, who drove herself to her cousin’s house that night to get help. “I was not on fire. When it blazed up, it was real hot.”

Newberry didn’t have time to gather belongings or get her cats to safety. At least two perished in the fire but others escaped, she said.

“When I saw that blaze up, I didn’t attempt to go back in,” she said. “I immediately got out, and I didn’t stop to look left or right. I just got out. It was like a house of fire.”

That’s exactly what firefighters tell you to do — get out.

Sgt. Ben Gleaton, an investigator for the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department, said one of Newberry’s heaters was not properly hooked up.

Newberry had carpet installed and was lighting the gas for the first time since the repairs when the explosion occurred.

She said she reminded the installer to make sure he reconnected the gas line, but she didn’t check behind him.

The Web site of the National Propane Gas Association maintains gas heat is more efficient and costs less than electricity. It encourages consumers to recognize what propane gas smells like. Scratch-and-sniff pamphlets are available at local retailers along with propane detectors similar to carbon monoxide alarms.

Anyone smelling a leak should evacuate the building as soon as possible and call the fire department or a propane provider from a neighbor’s home. Do not flip on light switches and try to find the leak yourself because a spark could set off an explosion.

Have your gas range serviced if the burner flame does not burn blue. The blue flame indicates complete combustion while a yellow hue indicates air inlets are clogged or burners need adjustment.

For now, Newberry is having to adjust to full-time city life, which is not easy for the retired deputy clerk of the U.S. District Court in Macon.

“There’s just something very special about that place out there,” Newberry said of her former home. “I have a lot of memories. I’m just said it ended this way.”

But she realizes it could have been much worse. Her hands and lips are healing with only a few blisters remaining.

“I think the good Lord was with me. He must have things for me to do,” she said. “I’m going to try to live like he would want me to.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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