TILFORD | A deep gouge in a gravel driveway and a smashed well house speak to the force of a propane tank explosion that took the life of a Sturgis firefighter, who perished along with another man in a raging residential fire in this quiet bedroom community Friday evening.
At a somber Saturday morning news conference in Sturgis, authorities identified the firefighter as David Fischer, 43, of Sturgis.
Early Saturday morning, firefighters and law enforcement officers found the body of resident Raymond Joseph Bachmeier, 82, within the blackened rubble of his destroyed home on Tilford’s State Street.
Fire information officer Lt. Jim Bussell, of the South Dakota Local Assisted State Team, said Fischer was among the first Sturgis firefighters responding to a report of a structure fire just after 4 p.m. Friday in Tilford, a tiny rural hamlet eight miles east of Sturgis on Interstate 90.
Firefighters found a single-family residence fully engulfed in flames, Bussell said.
Initial attempts to fight the fire were hampered by the neighborhood’s narrow gravel streets, congestion of nearby homes, sheds and garages, parked vehicles and overgrowth of summer grasses and underbrush.
“There was a large amount of combustible fuel for the fire,” Bussell said.
Downed utility lines and a number of propane tanks also threatened, as firefighters attempted to evacuate other homes and search for a reported missing person.
A 500-gallon propane tank located on the south side of the burning home exploded in a massive ball of flame, what Bussell called a “boiling liquid, expanding vapor explosion,” or BLEVE.
Fischer was attempting to move a Sturgis VFD command vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban, parked in a driveway north of the burning home.
A large portion of the exploding tank cleared the burning home, a fire engine and the Suburban and struck Fischer, killing him instantly.
The tank embedded in the walls of the well house. Another part of the tank was found about 350 yards to the south, near Interstate 90.
“He never knew (what hit him),” said Sturgis Fire Chief Shawn Barrows, appearing in dress uniform at Saturday’s news conference, his badge wrapped in black in honor of Fischer, who served as assistant fire chief and was a 22-year veteran of the department.
Fischer was also an active member of the Sturgis Ambulance Service and a member of the 82nd Civil Support team with the South Dakota Army National Guard.
After Fischer’s death, Sturgis firefighters continued to battle the blaze until the fire was essentially out, Barrows said.
Once relieved by another department, they escorted the body of their fallen comrade to a Sturgis funeral home.
“Through the process, we stayed with Dave,” Barrows said. “We will have a last watch, at least one person with Dave, until he is laid to rest.”
Bussell and Barrows said representatives of other fire departments, along with National Guard units, have volunteered to stand watch as well.
In all, more than 30 West River fire departments, coming from as far away as Wall and Quinn, fought the stubborn fire.
Firefighters from Custer monitored the scene and dealt with hot spots overnight, with units from Spearfish and Belle Fourche manning the Sturgis station, “so our firefighters could catch a breath,” Barrows said.
Additionally, a Meade County sheriff’s deputy, Daniel Morgan, was airlifted to Regional Health Rapid City Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, Sheriff Ron Merwin said. Morgan was released and is recovering at home.
Merwin said deputies met strong initial resistance asking other nearby residents to evacuate their homes.
“It’s like everything else, nobody wanted to leave. We got called lots of things, expletives, until the fuel tank blew, then everyone wanted to leave,” Merwin said.
A neighbor, Roger Schlem, who lived across State Street said his house shook from the force of the explosion.
“I came out and they wouldn’t let me go anyplace. They told me to stay in the house. There was too much going on,” said Schlem, whose mobile home sustained broken windows from the blast. The side of his shed adjacent to the street was also scorched.
He said Bachmeier drove buses until age 75. Two old buses parked near the burned home were also gutted.
“We was good neighbors,” Schlem said of Bachmeier. “He was just a wonderful guy.”
Bussell said the Red Cross provided motel lodging and other assistance for another resident of the home, who identity was not disclosed. Schlem described the other resident as a female friend of Bachmeier’s.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which routinely takes the reins of investigations of fires involving loss of life or high-dollar losses.
The Meade County Sheriff’s Office, state Fire Marshal and Department of Criminal Investigation are also investigating the fire.
Funeral services for Bachmeier and Fischer are pending. Fischer is survived by his wife Shawn, director of the Sturgis Ambulance Service, and a family.
Bussell said further information on the fire is available on social media platforms of SD LAST, a multi-agency response team helping departments deal with a line-of-duty death, along with websites for the Sturgis Fire Dept.