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Rising from the ashes: All was not lost for Harold Henson and his wife

River Falls painter Harold Henson suffered serious burns to both hands but survived a Dec. 19 fire that left his house at 212 S. Wasson Lane uninhabitable. Thanks to Harold’s efforts, his beloved dog Peanut got out alive. Three pet cats were not so fortunate. Harold’s wife of 17 years, Dr. Loretta Henson, a psychologist who offices at 123 W. Cascade Ave., was leaving work when told about the blaze.

Shaking his head, smiling, Harold Henson says he didn’t lose everything after a fire before Christmas destroyed his newly refurbished home, his art studio, killed three family cats and burned the hands he uses to paint.

“There’s so much to be thankful for,” he said. “I got out alive, and my wife, who is everything to me, had left the house earlier and was not anywhere near where she could have been harmed.

“Since the fire I have never felt abandoned or homeless because of all the outside support and prayers that came from people just when I needed it most.

“I am fortunate because I still feel I have much more in my life to give to this community and the groups I belong to -- the Masons, Rotary, church, choir, Bible study. It wasn’t my time to go.”

The 63-year-old Henson was puttering around in his split-level South Wasson Lane house late afternoon of Dec. 19.

It was a below-freezing day, so he had put a Duraflame log in the family room fireplace. The screen was pulled across to block sparks.

Then Harold went upstairs for 10 or 15 minutes.

He let Peanuts, his Yorkie dog, outside to do its business in the back yard. Then, following his wife Loretta’s instructions, Harold kept watch over some rice pudding in the upstairs kitchen oven.

Returning downstairs to the family room to watch TV, play with the cats or maybe try painting, Harold was stunned by what he saw: Easy chair near the fireplace in flames, smoke billowing.

Realizing the danger to his house, Harold ran to the chair, grabbed and pushed it toward the door connecting to the garage.

The burning chair wouldn’t maneuver through and by now Harold’s hands were singed by the flames.

Feeling the painful sting and going into shock, Harold called 911 on his cell phone, raced outside, broke some front windows so that his cats might find a way out, and then rushed back in and called for Peanut.

“There was too much smoke for me to go back in very far,” Harold said. “I was crying for the dog and then, finally, he came down the steps, and I bent and took him into my arms.”

With Loretta having left for work not long before, one car was out of the garage. Luckily, the other one was in the driveway. Harold backed that one into the street as local firefighters in their fire engines and EMTs in ambulances pulled up.

Harold, numbed by the sudden drama, said Fire Chief Scott Nelson rushed up to embrace and reassured him that help had arrived and things would be OK.

“We belong to the Rotary and he called me ‘Rotary brother,’” Harold said. 

Soon after, firefighters escorted Harold to a waiting ambulance.

But Harold wouldn’t go straight to the hospital -- not without finding his wife.

Loretta was planning to leave her downtown work office with daughter Jackie Paulson, a nurse at The Lutheran Home, to go watch a high school gymnastic home meet coached by Loretta’s granddaughter, Rachel Paulson.

Jackie already had heard about the fire when she picked up Loretta at 4:40 p.m.

“She said, ‘Your house is burning,’ so we drove there to see how bad it was,” Loretta said.

The two women were stopped on Morgan Street, blocks from their destination, by a neighborhood perimeter of squad cars and fire trucks.

“We could see the fire in the distance and heard that it was in the garage,” Loretta said. “At that time I didn’t know the extent of the fire and the damage it would cause to the rest of the house.”

Alerted to her presence, an ambulance crew drove Harold to where Loretta waited so they could confer before he was whisked to River Falls Area Hospital and later to Regions Hospital in St. Paul to consult a burn specialist.

Said Harold: “I wasn’t going to the hospital, not going anywhere else until I could see my wife first and comfort her before she tried to see what was left of the house.”

For much more on this story, please see the Jan. 16 print edition of the River Falls Journal.