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When Opportunity Knocks – How four locals answered the call to save a life

PHILIPSBURG – Timing is everything.

Chris Brown was back in Philipsburg with his girlfriend Saturday night, visiting friends and family in preparation for a birthday party the next day. The mood was light and people were having fun.

Then they heard an explosion and the sound of fire alarms going off.

That’s how Brown’s involvement in Saturday night’s house fire in Philipsburg began. The blaze, eventually extinguished by the Philipsburg Volunteer Fire Department, consumed a work shop at the residence of Joe Johnson who lives in the old Granite County High School building on a hill in the northwestern part of town.

Brown and his family were in the right place at the right time.

“We heard fire alarms going off and we joked that we should go fire truck chasing,” recalled Brown. “My uncle lives up there near the cemetery and someone stepped outside and said they could smell smoke. We jumped in my pick up and were going to go see what was on fire.”

Brown along with cousins Gage, Colin and friend David started toward the flames just to see what was going on. As they approached the incident, they heard a lady yelling “Help!” and trying to get into what was the original entrance to the school – a pair of glass double doors that Johnson had chained shut.

“I parked and we ran up,” continued Brown. “She said, ‘Joe is inside and he’s deaf. He can’t hear and he’s in a wheel chair and we can’t get him out.’ We knew the other side of the building was in flames so we couldn’t get in that way. I took it upon myself to kick in the glass.” Brown and his cousin Gage kicked in the glass door on the right, crawling inside. As they entered, they had to move a piano that was set against the inner set of doors to gain entry into the living area. The fire had already started filling the house with smoke, it’s bottom layer hanging about six feet from the floor and steadily descending.

“We found Joe in the foyer and were trying to get him out,” said Brown. “He was confused. He wanted to know what was on fire. The whole side of his house was on fire and we told him have to get out, but he kept wanting to go see what was on fire. He didn’t want to leave until he knew what was going on.”

Johnson, still disturbed by Saturday’s fire, declined to comment.

According to Brown, after several minutes of trying to get him to leave, the quartet got him to the stairs and helped him toward the exit.

“It was really unbelievable,” Brown said, describing the fire and explosions going on while he was in the house. “(The explosions) were sending a shock wave through the building. It was playing with your eardrums. When things would blow up you could feel the air pressure change and the force hitting your body.”

Johnson was able to walk down the steps and Brown’s companions carried his wheel chair. Upon reaching the broken glass door, Brown saw that the chain securing them had a U-clamp screw on it. He quickly undid the restraint and the group exited to safety.

The fire, which started just after 9 p.m., consumed the workshop located just 10 feet east of the main building. The only apparent structural damage to the Johnson’s home (the old Granite County High School) were a few broken windows and where the flames had burnt the southeast portico that Johnson regularly used to enter and exit the building. It is estimated that there is likely some smoke damage to the interior of the building as well.

The Philipsburg Volunteer Fire Department arrived on scene within minutes of the call, as their crew was at the station for their annual Firemen’s Feed Fundraiser. They worked on the blaze until early Sunday morning and returned after daylight to add more water to a few smoldering areas.


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