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Home explodes after thief nabs copper pipes

“It blew out one wall and bowed another one”


August 30, 2007

A thief who stripped copper tubing from a propane tank is blamed for a gas buildup and house explosion that severely burned an 80-year-old Onawa man, authorities said Wednesday.

Earl Thelander suffered third-degree burns over nearly half his body in Tuesday’s blast. Investigators say the gas buildup was linked to the disappearance of the tubing, which has increasingly been targeted by so-called “urban miners” who hope to cash in on the high price of certain scrap metals.

The burglar who hit Thelander’s rural home “maybe got $15 worth of copper,” Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said. “They cut the propane line going to the furnace of the house in an attempt to steal the copper.”

Pratt said Thelander discovered the theft Tuesday and tried to air out the house, which he uses for rental income. He went to the basement and plugged in a fan, which investigators say likely sparked the explosion shortly after noon.

“It blew out one wall and bowed another one,” Pratt said. “But Earl walked out of there.”

The thief got away with 25 to 40 feet of copper tubing. Scrap metal prices have climbed in recent years due to increased demand in countries such as India and China.

“This just totally bowled people over that someone would do something menacing like this,” Onawa Mayor Rebecca Tanner said. “It’s one thing to steal copper water pipes. But to steal copper gas pipes is beyond comprehension. This caused a tremendous explosion. Everyone knows how dangerous gas can be.

“Everyone in town who knows about this is amazed, startled and outraged.”

Thelander tried to use his cell phone to call for help, but it apparently was rendered inoperable in the blast.

“He drove himself back into town and to the hospital,” Pratt said. “He is really a remarkable guy.”

Thelander was later moved to an Omaha hospital with a specialized burn unit. He was in critical condition Wednesday.

Pratt said there have been relatively few copper thefts reported in Monona County.

“Counties to the south have had this problem,” he said. “Now we’ve got it – in a major way.”

Reporter Tom Alex can be reached at (515) 284-8088 or


Good point on if he had walked in on the thieves…
Posted by: leopard_colony on Sat Sep 01, 2007 9:18 am
Unfortunately Granddad hit the nail on the head… what would happen if someone interrupted these thieves? Odds are the homeowner would wind up dead. Since most theft is drug related it is likely the thieves have impaired judgment and are desperate for a fix. If you are in a rural area and hear someone outside you better be armed. There is no way the sheriff can reach you in time, nor do you want to pester them with false alarms. So grab your gun when you investigate. It doesn’t mean you have to shoot someone, it just means you can save your own life.

my solution
Posted by: FarWest on Thu Aug 30, 2007 2:00 pm
This thief deserves about 3 feet of 3/4″ copper suppository. I would say yes to attempted murder. I hope Mr. Thelander survives this. He must be one heck of a strong man to walk out of there and go for help.

Reader Comment
Posted by: Granddad on Thu Aug 30, 2007 1:12 pm
That is nothing less then attemted murder Don`t know if they are the same thieves that stole the copper out of One of my rentals three months ago. But catch these rotten bastards before someone gets killed. seriously if This outstanding gentalman (for his survival skills if nothing else)would have walked in on them stealing the copper what do you think these scumbags would have done(Surrender) Right.Solution. Need to moniter all sales of bulk copper having said this 3 times now DMPD are you listening there is only a handful of places that take metel like this. ARE records being kept ,Names being taken,Follow ups being made MMMM or a police force being lazy. now an elderly man has third degree burns over half his body GET BUSY.

Reader Comment
Posted by: dvmurphy from Waterloo, IA on Sep 4, 2007
I personally know Earl Thealander and his wife Hope. I hope they catch the no-good idiot who stripped his house of the copper tubing to the furnace. I hope Earl is doing great at the hospital and my heart goes out to his family. He is a great man and a great landlord to have. I should know as I rented an apartment from them for two years. If you needed anything that family was great. He is a well respected man in his community and would give you the shirt off his back to help you. The punk who caused his burns I hope he enjoys his lousy $15 that could have cost Earl his life. My Father always said that what you don’t pay for on earth you pay three fold to the Lord. The idiot who caused this accident will have to live with what he did. God bless you Earl.

Reader Comment
Posted by: dvmurphy from Waterloo, IA on Sep 4, 2007
I just found out that Earl died. I am saddened for his loss. My heart goes out to his family. If they catch this person responsible he should be tried for murder.

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