Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One child dies, another missing & a fireman injured in a farmhouse fire near my hometown December 5, 2013

I AM GRIEVING from a distance for two young children who apparently died in a house fire Wednesday afternoon near Lucan in my native southwestern Minnesota. The body of one child was recovered late Wednesday evening and one child remains missing.

The fire engulfed the home of Bernadette and Matt Thooft who escaped along with several of their children.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store.

Bernadette Thooft poses for a photo in March 2013 in her general store.

I met the Thooft family last March in my hometown of Vesta, where Matt runs Matt’s Frame Repair and Bernadette operates a combination grocery and thrift store next door. I featured Bernadette’s new business, The Store, in a “Little General Store on the Prairie” blog post published March 27. (Click here to read.)

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

The Store: Thrift and More. March 2013 Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

It’s not like I really knew the family in any great depth. But in the short time I spent with Bernadette, I learned enough to understand that this former daycare provider possesses a deep love for children. She and Matt had seven, ranging in age (in March) from not quite two to 11. They even built a hang-out space for the kids in a corner of The Store.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

The Thoofts make a faith statement in this sign which points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

Bernadette also possesses a deep faith and concern for others. This caring woman donates 10 percent of The Store proceeds to charity and established “Believe in the Backpack,” a backpack program for children in foster care. The Thoofts were former licensed foster care providers.

At the time of our interview, Bernadette fondly tagged her children “the hoodlums” in that kind and loving way that only a mom can.

It breaks my heart that this mother may have lost two of her children. It should be noted that authorities have not yet released information on the ages or identities of the children who did not escape the fire.

The Thoofts lived in a six-bedroom farmhouse on eight acres just 1.5 miles northeast of Lucan. They were in the process of trying to sell their property, according to information on The Store Facebook page. Plans were to relocate to my hometown of Vesta, seven miles to the north.

Vesta firefighters were among volunteers from eight area small town fire departments battling the blaze in harsh winter weather conditions.

That's Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen to the left behind the table, photographed at the Vesta Fire Department  Pork Chop Feed in March.

That’s Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen standing to the left behind the table, photographed at the Vesta Firemen’s Relief Association Pork Chop Supper in March.

THEREIN LIES THE SECOND PORTION of this tragic story. Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen’s legs were run over by a fire truck after he slipped on ice, according to numerous news sources. He was severely injured and underwent surgery at a Mankato hospital. Initially, he was taken to the Redwood Falls Hospital, but could not be airlifted out because of high winds and snowy conditions at the time, KLGR radio reports.

If you wish to help with expenses for Neal and Tiffany Hansen, both volunteer EMTs for the Vesta First Responders and the parents of a 2-year-old son, please click here and donate through the Hansens’ Giveforward page. By 8 p.m. Thursday, 75 donors had contributed $3,685 to the fund, surpassing the $3,000 goal.

Contributors Ryan and Christie Rudenick commented on the Giveforward page:

Thank you and to all the volunteer firemen, in small, tight knit communities like we have it is even harder to be on call and see horrific things happen to our friends and communities–you and all firemen are heroes!

Volunteer firemen remove the windshield from a junk car.

Vesta volunteer firemen remove the windshield from a junk car during a Jaws of Life demonstration in March of 2013 in my hometown of Vesta.

I ditto the Rudenicks’ “thank you.” With extended family members on two of the volunteer fire departments called to the Lucan farmhouse fire, I have a personal connection to these firefighters. My 29-year-old nephew, Adam, a father and elementary school teacher, responded to the fire with the Walnut Grove Fire Department.

Last winter I met several other Vesta firemen while attending a fire department fundraiser. You can click here to read that post.

Imagine the emotional impact this fatal fire is having on these volunteer firefighters from eight communities.

I expect know that the residents of Vesta and Lucan and surrounding areas will rally to assist the Hansen and Thooft families via prayer, emotional support, financial help and community benefit fundraisers. I’ll update you if a benefit is established for the Thoofts. Nothing beats the neighborly care found within small towns like Vesta, population 320, and Lucan, population 190.

This is not the first time the Thooft family has faced difficulties. In April 2008, the Thoofts’ then 6-year-old son, Zachary, was struck by a school bus after being dropped off at his rural home, according to an article in The Marshall Independent. He recovered from those injuries.

And now this, this deadly fire at their home…

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

24 Responses to “One child dies, another missing & a fireman injured in a farmhouse fire near my hometown”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I know that this has been on your heart ever since you heard the news and I am so sorry for their loss. Thank you for the links for the GiveForward page—–that is a wonderful way to assist in a tangible way. God Bless this family , the firefighter who was injured and all who have been touched by this event. Prayers for all.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Beth Ann. Yes, this has weighed heavily on my heart and I am grateful for your prayers and support. I will be updating this post shortly. The body of the second child has been found and a donation site set up to assist the Thooft family.

  2. Hannah Waldner Says:

    My prayers are with them from up here in Manitoba, Canada.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, KL. I will be updating shortly with links to the two Giveforward sites set up for the Thooft family as well as info from The United Way of Southwest Minnesota.

  3. Wow, that’s a lot of tragedy in one place/time. I remember your blog post about the Store. They’ll all be in my thoughts.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, especially in a rural area, where everyone knows everyone. From firefighters to school children to families, the loss of these children and the injury to the firefighter will have a deep emotional impact. I just updated my post on ways to help the two families.

      • Yes, I just read your other post this morning. And I saw on the news yesterday, right after reading this blog post, that they had identified the children. This is the saddest story. Thank you for the efforts you make to share this with those of us outside the area, who would otherwise find it so easy to tick this off as another news story that happens to people we don’t know. That community piece, that strength of connection, is so important.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        You are welcome, Kathleen. Thank you for your care and concern for those in my home area who are mourning and, now, uniting as small towns do.

  4. So tragic – I remember your post about them too. Sending thoughts and prayers to the family and the firefighter.

  5. Jackie Says:

    This is horrible and sad, I am praying for the families involved….just too hard to even imagine loosing a child, but then to hear two. I’m thankful the family knows Jesus as they will I’m sure be on their knees relying on His love, I will be praying for peace that passes all understanding!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, Jackie, yes, much to be thankful for their faith in God. Thank you for your prayers for the Thoofts.

  6. hotlyspiced Says:

    This is just too sad. How tragic and at such a time of the year. I cannot imaging losing one child, let alone two. And the parents sound like people of such good character. I pray the community will support them in every possible way as they will surely need it xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Absolutely, residents of area communities and beyond are rallying to support these two families.

  7. vicki williamson Says:

    Wow. I, too, had read the article on the store and had no idea that they were the victims. Such a sad situation, I can’t imagine….I wish them the best.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Vicki. I know this family will be surrounded with love and support and prayer. But it will be a tough road, facing the loss of two children.

      In the 24 hours since I updated this post, an additional $4,000 have been raised for the Thooft family, bringing the total to $12,000 via Giveforward.

  8. vicki williamson Says:

    PS I hope the firefighter has a speedy recovery also.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The injuries to his legs were severe. He has months of recovery ahead of him. Thank you for your wishes.

      • vicki williamson Says:

        Wow. No one was spared in this tragedy. My heart goes out to everyone one involved.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Your kind words are much appreciated, Vicki. You understand, first hand, what it is like to deal with an unexpected challenge given you lost your home to a flood.

  9. Wow. So very tragic. That’s wild that you had met and blogged about them. Oh, how one’s heart breaks over such news.


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