Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mourning Hazel and Isaiah, siblings who perished in a rural Minnesota house fire December 12, 2013

THE WORDS WRENCH at my heart as I read them. Words of consolation from family and friends attempting to comfort Matt and Bernadette Thooft, who lost two of their children in a house fire on Wednesday, December 4, near Lucan in my native southwestern Minnesota.

Anita Schoniger comments on the Stephens Funeral Service obituary page for the Thooft children: Auntie Nut loves you to the moon and back Miss Hazel Ann and my little Isaiah.

Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, died in the fire.

Beautiful babies…special angels…a happy little boy with a big smile…

A mother who’s lost a child writes: People say time heals all wounds, but honestly in this situation I’ve learned that time doesn’t heal that empty feeling you have in your heart, it just makes each day easier to get out of bed.

Such heartfelt words written by those who knew, or didn’t know, Hazel and Isaiah, their parents and five siblings, Zachary, 11; Augustus, Hazel’s twin; Maxwell and Abigail, both 4; and Beatrice Grace, 2.

On Friday, the lives of Hazel and Isaiah will be remembered and celebrated at funeral services set for 10:30 a.m. at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Wabasso. Visitation is scheduled at the church for 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday and for an hour prior to services Friday.

Hazel Thooft

Hazel Thooft

Reading the obituaries of these two siblings, I smile at the independence of Hazel, who often wore mismatched outfits and several shirts at a time. This St. Anne’s Catholic School second grader liked doing things her own way, embraced art and dancing and singing. She loved school and reading and, it seems to me, simply being among people.

Isaiah Thooft

Isaiah Thooft

Her younger brother Isaiah, likewise, loved people and laughter and possessed a bit of a mischievous streak. You can see that in his wide grin, in the revelation that this Wabasso Public School preschooler liked to play tricks on others. He, too, enjoyed books and several times a week visited the library. A boy after my own heart, appreciating the written word.

Both children, clearly, were outgoing and loved.

I cannot imagine a grief as deep as losing a child.

I take comfort in knowing that the Thooft family possesses a deep faith in God. It is that faith and the support of family, friends and strangers, and of the small communities of southwestern Minnesota, which will carry them through their grief.

Already, the Thoofts have received an outpouring of financial and emotional support via Giveforward accounts set up to assist them. As of early Wednesday evening, 232 donations totaling around $15,000 had been made to the family. First Independent Bank of Lucan and the United Way of Southwest Minnesota are also accepting donations. Click here to learn details about how you can donate.


JUST A NOTE: The Thoofts own two businesses, Matt’s Frame Repair and The Store (which I blogged about in March), in my hometown of Vesta. That is among the reasons this tragedy touches me personally. According to an update posted on The Store Facebook page yesterday morning, the combination thrift and grocery store which Bernadette ran solo will remain closed until further notice.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo credit: Stephens Funeral Service


31 Responses to “Mourning Hazel and Isaiah, siblings who perished in a rural Minnesota house fire”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Lovely remembrance and gives reality/heart to cold headlines. May the light of their memories warm the hearts of those who knew them personally. Hugs…….

    • Although I met the Thooft family in March, it was only briefly and I certainly did not know much about their children, except that they appeared outgoing, happy and loved. Now, to read about Hazel and Isaiah’s interests and personalities in their obituaries and in comments makes this tragedy really hit home, as you say, on a truly personal level. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comment, Doreen.

  2. rachaelhanel Says:

    Thank you for providing this additional information. I thought the media did not cover this very well (maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right places). A high school classmate lives in Lucan and has children, so you can imagine I was paying close attention to this story, especially before the names were released.

    It’s true that time will not “heal” wounds; I think the language we use around grief, the cliches, the soundbites, etc., can do more damage because people think they have to grieve a certain way.

    • You’re welcome, Rachael. I have not seen yet what I would call in-depth personal coverage on this tragedy either. I suppose initially sources may not have been willing to talk. But there are an incredible number of stories waiting to be told. For example: How are the two schools helping their students and staff deal with the deaths of Hazel and Isaiah? How are the volunteer firemen from eight area small towns coping? What about the Thoofts themselves (and I know right now would not be the best time to approach them), where will they live and what about their businesses? The communities of Lucan and Vesta have been especially impacted by this. How are residents of these towns reacting, feeling and rallying to help? The list could go on. But since I’m no longer a reporter and simply a blogger…

      Typically, in the metro media (and this is generalizing for sure), outstate Minnesota does not always get the attention it’s due. And I’m not talking just tragic stories like this one.

      When I heard the initial news about the fire, I was like you, very concerned as I know many people in the Lucan area. Even if I hadn’t known the family, my heart would still break.

      Your words about grieving are so true. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Beth Ann Says:

    What a sweet post today remembering these beautiful children, Audrey. It is such a tragic thing to experience such a deep loss as this –especially during the holidays—but I, too, rest in the fact that the parents share a deep faith in a loving God who will provide comfort and love when they think that they just can not take another step. What a wonderful tribute that so many have donated to the fund in their memory. Thank you for such a sensitive and heartfelt post.

    • You are welcome, Beth Ann. The words simply poured from my heart, especially after I saw the photos of those two sweet children and read their obituaries. Having met the Thooft children, I knew they were/are an energetic and loving bunch. Little Maxwell and Beatrice were hamming it up for the camera when I was in their Mom’s store last March.

  4. hacken2013 Says:

    What a tragedy. I will pray for the peace for the family.

  5. This breaks my heart – so sad. Beautiful post Audrey – thanks so much for sharing. Isaiah has the BEST smile/grin EVER. I loved that Hazel beats to her own drum or should I say guitar.

  6. Jackie Says:

    So sad, cant bare to think of such a loss for this family, thank goodness for their faith in knowing God will bring them through this….how else could you possible cope.

  7. hotlyspiced Says:

    What a devastating and shocking tragedy. To have your home burn to the ground is one thing but to lose not one but two of your children in that fire is beyond belief. How awful for the Augustus who has lost his twin sister. It’s all just horrible and at such a time of year when families are coming together to celebrate. They will need all of their faith and the support of the community for a very long time to get through this xx

    • I thought the same as you, how especially difficult for Gus to lose his twin sister. For the whole family, though, and the three small towns where this family attended school, lived and worked. St. Anne’s Catholic School is closed on Friday for the Hazel and Isaiah’s funeral. It will be a sad day for so many, as it has been since a week ago Wednesday.

  8. Heartbreaking. I don’t even know what to say. Can’t imagine.

  9. Mary DeCann Benson Says:

    Dear Audrey,

    Thank you for blessing Bernadette and Matt, and our entire family with your beautiful and moving tribute to Hazel and Isaiah. You captured the spirit and the heart of each child perfectly, and for that, our family is very grateful. You mentioned in one of the comments that I read, that you met my Sister and Brother-In-Law in March and did not know much about them or their children. I hope the following will help you to know them a little better.

    Matt is a quiet man, intensely private, with a deep and abiding love of God. Bernadette is much more outgoing, our “talker”, a lover of people, moved by faith, and a woman whom I swear has truly never met a stranger. Bernadette and Matt live their lives and raise their children by four guiding principals: God; Family; Community; Self, in that order. In a world that so often values the tangible, they have taught their children that the real beauty and value of life comes not from what you own, but from what you experience and most importantly, those you experience it with. They are a family that eats dinner together every night, prays before each meal and remembers to thank God at the close of every evening for the blessings they have received throughout the day. Sundays are “Family Day”; the day Matt makes pancakes for his children after church, dirtying way too many dishes in the process and leaving Bernadette to follow behind grumbling that “Dad needs to learn to clean as you go”. It is a day they have set aside to do something special as a family and we, the extended family, know not to call on Sundays because our calls will go unanswered and unreturned until the following day.

    That is not to say that extended family is not important to them, just the opposite. As the children of older parents, both Bernadette and Matt understand what it was like to grow up missing out on the Grandparent experience. They have been determined that their children have the opportunity to know their Grandparents and to be a part of the lives of the multitude of Aunts, Uncles and cousins that make up this large and loud family. They have graciously shared their children with us, including us in every birth, baptism, birthday, holiday and special occasion. And today, as I write this, I have never been more grateful for those moments.

    They are a family that does for others. They have taught their children that the world is not a fair and equal place and that we have been charged by God to take care of those who are less fortunate. Their children have been taught that it is not enough to simply give away something that is no longer valued. That it is only when they are able to willingly give up something they truly treasure that the real blessing of giving is received.

    I’m pretty certain Audrey that I could write paragraphs more telling you about the Mother/Daughter days Bernadette had with Hazel each month. Or why they chose to change Isaiah’s middle name to Matthew after his new Daddy when he was adopted, but I think for now that this is enough. Bernadette and Matt are not perfect parents and they would not appreciate me trying to make them out to be anything more than two people struggling to do their best on a daily basis. They are good people, suffering a loss that most of us can never come close to understanding and they would be the first to say, that they hope the rest of us will never have to.

    With Love,
    Mary DeCann Benson

    • Mary, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this deeply personal perspective on Matt and Bernadette. I spent maybe an hour with them when I was back in my hometown of Vesta last March. I had heard about Bernadette’s new store and was so excited about this opening in Vesta that I had to blog about it. From the minute I walked into The Store, I felt welcomed. Bernadette greeted me with that great smile and her wonderful sense of humor and warm personality. Matt was napping in the kids’ playroom, but popped out to say “hi.” A few of the kids were running around and darling Bea and Maxwell hammed it up for the camera.

      I’m not at all surprised by your description of how Matt and Bernadette are raising their children. What a joy it is to read of their four guiding principals. What a God-driven way to live their lives and parent their children.

      That they have such a large extended family with whom they are deeply connected is such a blessing.

      May God bless each of you with peace and strength and an ongoing abiding love for one another as you face this new life without Hazel and Isaiah.

  10. Sara Connelly Says:

    I just became friends with Bernadette this last year and I dont really know Matt but I do know that this is a wonderful family and I feel blessed to know them.

  11. Anita Schoniger Says:

    Beautiful article, Audrey! Thank you so much for the wonderful tribute to my family. It made my heart smile reading your touching words.
    Anita Schoniger (Auntie ‘Nut)

  12. Bernadette Thooft Says:

    Blessed are those who see
    Everyday things are…

    The things we should be the most Thankful for.
    How many times
    Are food, shelter, friends, family – taken for granted?
    Not intentionally, but because we get caught up in the busyness of life.
    Knowing the VALUE of our everyday Blessings
    Fills our lives with JOY!!
    Understanding that life is about the little moments
    Leads us to God and His Amazing Love for US!!

    I am still in a “fog” so I apologize if I ramble but our family is extremely grateful for the hard work and efforts of ALL the AREA Fire Departments, First Responders, EMTS, Redwood County Sheriffs Department, Red Cross, Father John Ekwoanya, Deacon McKeown, Father Todd Petersen, and all the Support Staff and ANYONE else that helped in any way. Everyone worked so hard to protect and take care of our family and we are so very thankful that they found our babies.

    Also, the outpouring of love and support we have received from not only our community but the surrounding community’s has overwhelmed us. The generous donations of shelter, clothing, furniture, food, gift cards, money, time, and just the care and concern that has enveloped us. A Special Thank-You for the Stephens Funeral Home of Redwood Falls, for their kindness and support. In this horrifying time God’s glory is shining through and we feel blessed by this. We would trade it all to have our two babies back in our arms again. But we KNOW and TRUST that God has a plan for each of us and that our Isaiah and Hazel Anne are with Him.

    God Bless & Protect Each of You,
    Matthew, Bernadette,
    Zachary, Augustus (Gus), Maxwell James & Beatrice Grace Thooft

  13. Bernadette Thooft Says:


    Thank you so much for all your prayers, and just sharing the beautiful lives of our babies with others. Isaiah and Hazel Anne were both fiercely “independent” and yet not. They both loved to do things their way – and neither liked being “challenged” on an issue. 🙂 They had beautiful spirits – were extremely funny, loved to tell jokes, play jokes, goof off and watch old cartoons like; Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, The Pink Panther, etc…. and LAUGH oh they would laugh at the silly antics!! I love listening to my minions laugh. It makes any day better. And I am so grateful to God that my little ones could see the humor, and specialness of just everyday stuff – that many people take for granted (me included).

    I am deeply touched by all the wonderful things said about my family, and myself – but those that know me (and my family) definitely know I am not perfect and never claimed to be “normal”. That is why I call them friends and I believe they call me theirs…. as we recognize that each of us is human and uniquely flawed. I tell my children that we are constantly learning something new, knowledge is power and what you do with that – is purely your choice. It’s okay to make mistakes, that I make several each and every day. It’s how you deal with them that makes you – you.

    The point I am trying to make, but am still having issues putting my thoughts into words is… people tend to “idolize” or make those that have died, or those who are suffering out to be “amazing and perfect”.Please don’t make our family out to be the “Brady’s or Waltons” — I believe my children are all amazing and perfect. But my definition of that is we are all created by God and perfectly flawed. And our Isaiah and Hazel Anne had amazing imperfections that made them who they are. It was those things that made us laugh, cry, argue, and roll our eyes at them.

    Once again Thank-you for everything!!

    • I appreciate your taking the time to share more about your precious Hazel and Isaiah. They sound like delightful and unique children. And if they didn’t make you roll your eyes a few times, I’d wonder. Don’t all kids?

      None of us are perfect parents and none of us have perfect families. I love your take on yourself that you “never claimed to be normal.” I think you’d fit right in with my extended family. Our families love and embrace us no matter our quirks, or perhaps because of them. “Created by God and perfectly flawed” sums it up well.

      In your grief, your faith still abides and shines, Bernadette, and that is powerful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.