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Minnesota teen searches for stranger who helped save his life

BEMIDJI -- Summer vacation is supposed to be a time of fun.

But for a Bemidji teenager he learned a life lesson from a near death experience. 

Each day as he goes through hours of rehab one question is on his mind.

Who was the stranger who helped save his life?

An August workout is usually part of 14 year Gabe Schwarzlander's routine with football season just around the corner.

But this summer he isn't getting ready to hit the gridiron at Bemidji High School, Gabe just wants to be a normal kid again....

"I won’t be fully recovered they said for a year to 18 months," he explained.

Back in June Gabe and several friends were riding on an ATV Ranger along County 23 near Leonard, when an afternoon of fun nearly turned tragic. As the boys rode over some bumps gas from unplugged cans in the box of the ATV started splashing everywhere.

“Gas all over my back and a couple seconds later a big flame came rushing in," Gabe recalled.

The fireball so intense it melted a highway sign. Meanwhile, Gabe's clothes caught fire.

“I just remember jumping out and the flames not going out,” he remembered.

The stop drop and roll method didn't work right away in this case, because the gas covered his shirt acting as an accelerant as Gabe rolled around on the ground.

“I was just in panic mode, just rolling around and flopping everywhere,” said Gabe.

“I was in shock, I couldn't believe this was happening,” explained Justin Nelson who was also on the ATV.

Gabe's burns were so severe he was flown to a Minneapolis burn unit where he would stay for the next month with burns to 37 percent of his body. 

"I fell to the floor and screamed, never how you want to see the child you love and care about," said Gabe’s mom Melissa.

There is still a mystery that hangs over the accident site. Who was the woman who stopped and helped the boys until rescue crews arrived?

“We are just walking back and forth and this mysterious lady stopped with her car, she just kept walking with us,” recalled Nelson.  

“We call her angel, not everybody would have stopped given the condition Gabe was in,” commented Melissa.

While Gabe's friends are getting ready to back to school he spends several hours a day, four days a week in rehab.

”One of the big things we are doing to manage those scars is too stretch that new tissue as it grows, to help make sure it grows in and smooths out to make sure it doesn't restrict his range of motion,” said Sanford Outpatient Rehab Manager Kris Naig.

Gabe says it's been tough not being able to hang out with friends, hit the lake, or get ready for football, but admits he learned a lesson that can't always be taught in school.

“Big event in my life, and I'm pretty young, it will probably make me a better and stronger person and realize how important it is to be safe,” he explained.

Several of the boys sustained minors burns and where treated locally.