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Redby man dies in fire after he helped save others

BEMIDJI -- Michael Johnson ran into his mother's room in the Redby, Minn., house, screaming. "Mom! Mom! Wake up! The house is on fire!" Michael, 27, slept in his own bedroom down the hall and around the corner from where his mother, Eileen Johnso...

BEMIDJI -- Michael Johnson ran into his mother's room in the Redby, Minn., house, screaming. "Mom! Mom! Wake up! The house is on fire!"

Michael, 27, slept in his own bedroom down the hall and around the corner from where his mother, Eileen Johnson, shared a bedroom with his sister, Anne-Marie, and niece, Gabriella Dominguez.

Michael ran into their room at about 6:30 a.m. Friday, shouting at his family to wake up, to somehow escape the house that was filling up with deep, black smoke.

Once awake, barely comprehending what was happening "I thought I was dreaming." Eileen gathered her family into a group.

"Stay together," she yelled. "Stay together!"

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She could hear little Gabriella, 1 years old, coughing and struggling to breathe. Eileen pushed out a window in the bedroom. She jumped, or fell, to the ground below.

She shouted at Anne-Marie to throw Gabriella out the window, that somehow she would catch her. And somehow, she did,

"It was pitch black," she said, saying that the windows were pretty high off the ground.

Eileen looked at the window, waiting for Anne-Marie.

"I kept watching for her," Eileen said. "She wasn't coming. I kept telling her to hurry."

Soon, she saw Anne-Marie come flying out the window.

Michael had pushed her.

Eileen began watching for her son.

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"I was yelling at him 'Michael! Michael! Get out,'" she said.

A neighbor arrived. Everyone was now screaming for Michael to jump, to fall to just get free.

Michael never made it. He died Friday morning as the Redby house was destroyed.

"That's the way he was; that's exactly the way he was," Eileen said. "He put everyone else first before himself. He wanted to make sure everyone else was safe, that everyone else had what they needed."

The one-story house previously had been owned by Eileen's parents, Johnson and Clemence Loud. Clemence died four years ago. Johnson died this past December.

Eileen had moved into the house to help care for her father. Johnson had suffered heart attacks in both June and September last year.

After Johnson died, Michael decided to move in as well.

"He wanted to help me through my father's death," Eileen said. "He wanted to make sure we were safe, that things were OK."

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Michael was previously working at Seven Clans Casino in Thief River Falls. But, he recently had been transferred to the Red Lake Casino.

"He was so happy to get the transfer," Eileen said. "He said, 'Now I can spend more time with you.'"

Had he not received the transfer, he would not have been home at the time of the fire, Eileen said.

He would have been on his way to work in Thief River Falls.

She may not ever know what actually woke Michael up Friday morning. Michael was deaf. He could hear with the help of his hearing aids, but he took them out at night to sleep.

She thinks that maybe one of the two cats woke him up.

"He only lived 27 years," she said. "But he lived a lot longer than that when you look at how he helped people."

Eileen said Michael was known throughout the area for his kind heart and willingness to help people.

In a tribute to Michael, the family has set up a Web site at Miskwa-Andeg.com and is asking friends and acquaintances to share their memories and stories of Michael.

"A lot of people knew Michael and the way he lived," Eileen said. "He was very unselfish, very humble. He was a very traditional young man."

The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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