Mike Lantz rubbed his rugged face, trying to fight back tears as he looked at his wife of nearly three decades.
DUNN COUNTY HERALD
“She’s all right. Nothing else matters,” the gruff former oil-rig driller said.
Rene Lantz sat in an easy chair watching a movie on television. It was a comedy, but she wasn’t smiling. She glanced at her life partner and smiled back at him. It was a sad smile.
But make no mistake about it, Mike and Rene are not sad and they have plenty to smile about. A little over two weeks ago, they were miraculously rescued from their burning home in Dunn Center.
They lost everything … their house, furniture, clothes, family heirlooms, photos, their pets … and very nearly their own lives.
“It was a miracle,” Mike said, his voice trailing off.
He bit his lower lip. Then he sighed quietly and looked away, his eyes blinking. He sat with Rene in a strange apartment in Killdeer that was provided to them by KMM, Mike’s employer for the past several years.
It’s fully furnished. There’s food in the refrigerator. It’s warm. It’s safe. The couple is safe.
People from all walks of life have made donations for the couple since their Dunn Center home was devoured by the inferno. They’ve come with cash. They’ve come with clothing and food and simple everyday items. They’ve donated their time. They’ve come with happy thought, well-wishes and genuine interest, concern and love.
“I don’t have the words to say how I feel right now,” Mike said quietly. “I am so grateful. I don’t know how I’m going to show my gratitude for what they did for us.”
“How do I pay these people back?” he asked. “How do you pay somebody back who saved your life?”
Mike shakes his head, rewinding the nightmare that has been last three weeks over and over. Each time he hopes it is just a bad dream that will end when he wakes up.
“I kept thinking, this can’t be real. This can’t be real,” Mike said, again looking away.
It started after Mike made some French fries on Dec. 30. He went into the bedroom where Rene was watching television in bed. They spend a lot of time in the bedroom because of an illness that has stricken Rene for the past five years. Rene has Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and is confined to a wheel chair. MRSA is an infection caused by a type of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Rene heard some popping noise coming from the kitchen area and thought one of the couple’s cats had gotten into something. She asked Mike to check it out.
When he went back toward the kitchen, he saw flames. He forgotten to turn off the stove and grease he used to cook the French fries popped up and splattered onto the low flame.
“I screamed for Rene to call the fire department,” Mike said.
“But I couldn’t because the fire had burned the phone cord,” Rene said.
Mike raced into the cold night and saw that a neighbor was working in his shop across from the house. He quickly pounded on the door, screaming there as a fire in the house and to call the fire department.
Seconds later, he was back in the house. He had to get his wife out of the house.
By that time, there was smoke – life-choking smoke – everywhere.
“All I remember is the house filling up with black smoke, really black smoke,” Rene said. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Mike called out for Rene. He was standing next to her. They couldn’t see each other. Mike reached for his wife’s hand. Their life was seeping into the darkness.
“I felt hands on my arms and legs and somebody was pulling me out,” Rene said.
With the fire growing and the smoke billowing in the house, those hands went back into the house to look for Mike. Although Rene was semiconscious when they went back in, she was level-headed enough to pray for her husband’s safety.
Moments later, they had Mike. He was unconscious and they started emergency safety procedures on him.
“I remember getting a hold of Rene’s hand,” Mike said. “The next thing I remember is somebody trying to put a respirator on me.”
“I got scared when they were doing CPR on him,” Rene said. “I was yelling at Mike and he wasn’t answering,” Rene said.
Friends and others at the scene calmed Rene down, saying they are taking care of Mike and that he would be all right.
There were many who had a part in the rescue for which Mike and Rene will be forever grateful. Forever. Some say they don’t consider themselves heroes.
“Hell yeah, they’re heroes. They put their lives on the line for us. They didn’t hesitate,” Mike said, his voice emphatic as he made the statement. “If they didn’t get there when they did, we would’ve died.”
After they were pulled from the house, both Mike and Rene were taken to different medical facilities. Rene was taken to the hospital in Dickinson, but Mike’s condition took a turn for the worse during the transport.
“They told us he stopped breathing and his heart stopped,” Rene said.
Instead of Dickinson, the ambulance he was in stopped in Manning where he was airlifted to Bismarck, and then to a burn unit in St. Paul, Minn.
When Rene arrived at the hospital in Dickinson, she asked a nurse about her husband.
“I asked, ‘Where is my husband?’ and they said ‘What husband?”” Rene said.
She started to panic as fear began to consume her. Where was he? Did the ambulance crash because of the roads? What happened to him?
Minutes later, hospital officials confirmed that Mike was being flown to a burn unit in St. Paul and that he was OK. During the fire he suffered third-degree burns to his head, arms and shoulders.
Mike asked the same question about his wife in St. Paul. The last thing he remembered about Rene was when he grabbed her hand in the burning house.
“They told me she was OK,” Mike said. “She’s my life. When they told me she was OK, everything was OK at that time.”
Mike was hospitalized for six days, Rene for seven.
While in the hospital, Rene was visited by a lady who worked in the cafeteria. She gave Rene an envelope that contained $1,003. Rene was told to use the money or forward it to somebody else in need plus a dollar.
The lady explained that her home was destroyed by fire earlier. An unknown person sent her the envelope of money for use, or forward it to somebody else who needs it.
They haven’t touched the money. Mike and Rene plan to send the envelope plus a dollar to a family in Belfield, whose home was destroyed by fire last week.
“You forget that you are loved a lot more than you realize,” Rene said. “I am so overwhelmed by how many people really care.”
A fund has been established for the couple at First International Bank, donation jars are set up throughout Dunn County, and other donations are being collected by KMM. A benefit dinner is scheduled to Jan. 28 at the DC Pub & Grub in Dunn Center.
But perhaps the most telling example of that human compassion came when Rene admitted that she was really disappointed that she lost her wedding ring. Friends went back to the charred building, dug through the rubble … and found the wedding ring.
“Humanity is the word,” Mike said. “Sometimes you forget about how much humanity is out there.”