Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How you can assist two families in need after a tragic southwestern Minnesota fire December 6, 2013

2:15 P.M. FRIDAY, UPDATE TWO: The two children who died in the house fire Wednesday afternoon near Lucan have been identified by a family friend as Hazel Thooft, 7, and her brother, Isaiah, 4, according to a just-published story in The Minneapolis Star Tribune. (To read that story, click here.) Hazel was a second grader at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Wabasso and Isaiah attended preschool in the Wabasso School District.

The Wabasso Public School District is where I attended school in grades 9-12.

The remainder of this post was written this morning with information on benefit funds also just updated.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an update to my post about a house fire outside of Lucan in Redwood County in rural southwestern Minnesota which claimed the lives of two children Wednesday afternoon and also seriously injured a firefighter from my hometown of Vesta. Click here to read my initial story.

THE BODY OF A SECOND CHILD, as yet unidentified, was recovered late Thursday afternoon from the ruins of the Bernadette and Matt Thooft home, according to numerous news reports. Authorities found the first child’s body late Wednesday. Their names and ages have not yet been released.

Bernadette and Matt and several children escaped the fire.

A Vesta firefighter, Neal Hansen, remains hospitalized with serious leg injuries after he slipped on ice and was run over by a fire truck.

Online fundraising sites have now been established to raise monies for the Thooft and Hansen families.

Giveforward Thooft family - Copy

Via the Giveforward website, you can support the Thoofts either at Thooft Family Fund (click here) with a $25,000 goal or at Lucan Family loss from house fire (click here) with a $30,000 goal. As of this update, $8,030 have been raised.

First Independent Bank of Lucan has established a fund to collect monetary donations for the Thooft family. Checks should be made payable to and sent to the following address: Matt & Bernadette Thooft Benefit, P.O. Box 138, Lucan, MN. 56255. Donations may also be made in person at First Independent Bank locations in Lucan, Marshall (main bank and at Walmart location), Russell, Ruthton, Balaton, Wood Lake, Beardsley and Hanley Falls. Call (888) 747-2214 or email rhillesheim@fibmn.com for more information.

The United Way of Southwest Minnesota, 109 South 5th St., Suite 300, Marshall, MN., 56258, is also helping the Thooft family. The organization is accepting donations of gift cards and of clothing, toiletries and non-perishable food items. Additionally, the family will need furniture. Contact the United Way with information on the furniture you have available. When the family is ready to accept that furniture, volunteers will pick up and deliver the items. Email unitedway@unitedwayswmn.org or call (507) 929-2273.

The American Red Cross assisted the family with immediate needs, too.

Giveforward Hansen family - Copy

Fundraising efforts also continue online at Giveforward for the injured Vesta volunteer firefighter at Neal Hansen Benefit. Click here to help Neal and Tiffany, the parents of a two-year-old son. The campaign, as of this update, has raised $4,530, surpassing its $3,000 goal.

This tragedy has weighed heavy on my heart. I met the Thooft family in March when I stopped at Bernadette’s new business, The Store, a combination thrift shop and grocery store in my hometown of Vesta, population around 320. New businesses do not open all that often in this rural community, so I was excited and blogged about this in my post, “Little General Store on the Prairie”. (Click here to read.) Right next door, Bernadette’s husband runs Matt’s Frame Repair.

I was especially delighted to meet Bernadette, a woman with a big heart. I instantly warmed to her outgoing personality and sense of humor. She affectionately dubbed her seven children “the hoodlums” in the most loving way. Several of the youngest kids were showing off for me and posing for photos while I interviewed Bernadette. Now, to think…

Please, give to either/both of these families if you can and support them in prayer. Also, spread the word via social media.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A firefighter’s praise for “Ted from Owatonna” September 16, 2011

Ted Leon, initially known only as "Ted from Owatonna," extinguishes the fire on and under my neighbor's deck with water from a garden hose late Saturday afternoon. Ted was the first on the scene.

FIVE DAYS AFTER Ted Leon of Owatonna, the passerby who extinguished a deck fire at my neighbor’s house with water from a garden hose, I spoke to a Faribault firefighter who responded to the scene. As you recall, my initial post about Ted sparked a whirlwind of media coverage to find “Ted from Owatonna.”

I wanted to hear what professional Joel Hansen, whom I’ve personally known for years, thought of Ted’s actions. I was finally able to connect with Joel late Thursday morning; he had been off-duty for several days.

“What he did was very heroic, very courageous,” Joel says.

Ted ran onto the burning deck and banged on the front door to alert the Klocek family of the late Saturday afternoon fire before putting out the blaze himself. Kristin Klocek and her young daughter escaped through a side door into the garage.

“He went way and above what a normal person would do. I’m encouraged to see someone who got that involved,” Joel says, emphasizing that dialing 911 to get the fire department en route should be the first course of action in any fire. Ted’s wife, Kathe, made that call.

Joel praises Ted for stopping, getting that emergency call in via Kathe, focusing first on the safety of the residents, and then having the presence of mind to look for a garden hose to put out the fire.

“Life safety is first,” Joel says. “We want people to be safe.”

Ted, he says, seemed to be aware of his safety, to know what he was doing and to understand that he had options—like leaping over the deck railing—had that become necessary to escape the flames.

“I wouldn’t encourage someone to put themselves in harm’s way,” Joel says, “but I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing (as a passerby like Ted).”

In this photo you can see the scorched deck and how the heat of the fire melted the vinyl siding.

If Ted hadn’t extinguished the fire when he did, there would have been “substantially more damage” to the deck and home exterior before firefighters arrived, Joel says. The Kloceks live about six blocks from the fire station, mere minutes away. Damage to the home was limited to a partially-burned deck and wood chips underneath and to the front door and siding, which were warped due to the intense heat.

Statistics show that a fire doubles in size every three minutes, according to Joel.

BESIDES TED’S HEROISM, Joel and I talked in general about how people react to a fire. Some panic. Others call 911 and then leave. Some have no concern for personal safety… Then he mentioned “tunnel vision.”

I told Joel I was so focused on making sure my neighbors were safe and Ted was so focused on getting the blaze out (after he knew the family was aware of the fire) that we didn’t communicate. Joel wasn’t surprised.

Then he asked if I looked for traffic before crossing Tower Place as I ran toward my neighbor’s home during the fire. I did. I distinctly remember telling myself to stop and look for cars.

But I don’t recall hearing emergency sirens, although I watched two police cars and a fire truck race down Willow Street toward the scene. My husband assures me the sirens were blaring.

In contrast, I remember sidestepping a pile of dog poop in the Kloceks’ yard and reminding myself to avoid that patch of grass. I was barefoot.

I recall seeing a woman on her cell phone in the Kloceks’ side yard. I also recall a young man in the front yard, someone my husband later noted as a motorist who had pulled over in his truck and parked along Tower Place.

FOR NIGHTS AFTER THE FIRE, I didn’t sleep well. The first night I was twice awakened by emergency sirens. We live along an ambulance route, an arterial street through town, and I’ve become so accustomed to sirens that I often sleep right through them. But not Saturday night.

At 5:30 a.m . Sunday I awoke to the smell of smoke and flew out of bed to check if the fire at my neighbor’s house had rekindled. It hadn’t. Later I realized the smoke odor likely came from a smoldering campfire.

For days afterward I felt emotionally-drained. Talking with Joel on Thursday proved cathartic. He understood how my emotional involvement—knowing the family—affected my reactions at the fire. He understood my lingering thoughts and emotions even days afterward.

I shared with him that I have a new appreciation for how rapidly a fire can spread.

He’s heard it all—how people think a fire can never happen to them, how they intended to replace the batteries in a smoke detector…

Before Joel and I ended our conversation, I asked him about an award for Ted. He can’t speak publicly about that possibility, he says, because such an honor would be routed through the local union (not the fire department) and that involves a specific process.

But you can read between the lines here. I fully expect Ted to be honored. And you can bet I’ll be there thanking him. Again.

CLICK HERE to read a story on today’s The Northfield News website about a fire just outside Dundas that sounds all too-recently familiar. The Thursday morning fire also involved a passerby, a garden hose and a cigarette.

CLICK HERE to read my first fire post.

CLICK HERE to read my interview with Ted Leon, whom I’ve termed our “Willow Street neighborhood hero.”

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Found: Citizen firefighter Ted Leon from Owatonna September 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 4:07 AM
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READERS, WE’VE FOUND “Ted from Owatonna,” the passerby who Saturday afternoon stopped to extinguish a quickly-spreading fire on my neighbor’s deck.

Thanks to the quick action of Ted Leon, 47, an attorney at Federated Insurance in Owatonna, Kristin and Kevin Klocek’s Faribault house was saved from what both Ted and I believe could have been a devastating fire. (Click here to read my first blog post about the fire.)

Up until late Monday afternoon, I did not know Ted’s last name because he identified himself only as “Ted from Owatonna” when he left the scene, telling me he had to get going. He told me that much only because I asked. He was the first to arrive at the fire, to grab a garden hose.

But before I get into details about Ted’s firefighting, let me first tell you how we found Ted. And I say “we” because this was a joint effort that initially involved my blogging about the fire, followed up by Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins linking to my story in his News Cut column, Faribault Daily News Managing Editor Jaci Smith learning of my post via Collins’ post and then the Faribault newspaper and its sister paper, The Owatonna People’s Press, publishing a “Do you know this man?” community alert on their websites that included a photo I shot once the fire was under control.

This photo was posted on the newspaper websites in an effort to locate "Ted from Owatonna."

A friend of Ted’s saw the online photo and contacted the Owatonna paper with Ted’s name and number. This I learned from Jaci Smith, who had called me earlier Monday for permission to use my photos and to ask me about the whole event.

Early Monday evening Ted called me, before I had an opportunity to phone him.

So, how then did Ted end up on Willow Street in Faribault at the precise moment the smoldering fire flared up on Kevin and Kristin’s deck?

He, his wife Kathe and their three youngest sons were on their way from The Defeat of Jesse James Days re-enactment in Northfield to 4 p.m. Mass at Divine Mercy Catholic Church. They are not members of the Faribault parish—they attend Sacred Heart in Owatonna—but because Kathe was participating in a St. Paul bike ride Sunday morning, they opted to attend the Saturday afternoon service in Faribault en route home. Their Owatonna church does not have a Saturday Mass.

Kathe told her husband she knew how to get to Divine Mercy and, says Ted, “That put us right in the path of the fire.”

It was nearing 4 p.m. when the Leons were driving in the 400 block of Willow Street. “I looked to the right and saw the fire pretty much engulfing the front deck,” Ted recalls.

As his mind computed the situation, he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing until he realized, “Oh, my goodness, that thing is on fire.” He pulled over, asked Kathe to call 911. Concerned that a grill and propane tank might be involved (they weren’t), Ted told his family to remain inside their van while he raced toward the fire.

He remembers only, in those initial moments, being “really focused in” on the fire and worried that people were inside the house. Ted had reason for concern. Kristin and her daughter Kaylee were inside, unaware of the blaze. As Ted ran up the steps and onto the deck toward the front door, he felt the intense heat of the actively-spreading fire.

He pounded on the screen door, peered through the screen and saw a little girl with her back to him. He ripped the screen and pounded again on the interior door and hollered “Fire, get out!” (or something like that; he doesn’t recall his exact words) until she noticed him.

In this photo you can see how the heat of the fire melted the vinyl siding.

“Once I knew they were aware of the fire, I ran around the house looking for a hose,” Ted continues.

He found two hoses connected to a single water spigot and grabbed one. As he pulled the hose toward the burning deck and the burning wood chips below the deck, the hose jerked from his hand. It was too short. He ran back to the spigot, flipped a lever that sent water to the second hose and “said a prayer it would be long enough.”

It was. The fire responded quickly to the water.

Days after the fire, Ted seems humbly surprised at the media attention. “I didn’t feel like it was a big deal,” he says of his actions.

Anyone would have done what he did, Ted claims. “It was my turn (to help someone).”

I agree with Ted, to a point. I’m not sure I could have gone onto that deck with the actively spreading fire. I saw those intense flames when I arrived just as Ted was grabbing that second hose.

“It’s nice to be able to put your faith into practice and help someone,” this Good Samaritan says.

Later, while worshipping at Divine Mercy, he offered prayers of thanksgiving. His clothes reeked of smoke, he says, and his legs felt sunburned from the intense heat of the fire.

Ted doesn’t remember me several times screaming, “Kristin and Kevin, get out!” He was, as he says, totally focused on extinguishing the fire and making sure everyone was out of the house.

I remain convinced, and so does Ted, that the entire house soon would have been engulfed in flames had he not spotted the deck fire and taken immediate action.

While on the scene of the fire, I spoke with Faribault firefighter Joel Hansen, who was very much interested in finding “Ted from Owatonna” and possibly presenting him with an award for his actions.

I told Ted Monday evening that I would see him at the awards ceremony.

FYI, A LITTLE BACKGROUND if you have not yet read my first post: I was working in my home office Saturday afternoon when my 17-year-old son, who was sitting on the couch working on his laptop, heard a car horn, looked up and saw the fire directly across the street. “The neighbor’s house is on fire!” he shouted.

I grabbed my camera, which was right next to my desk and raced out the front door, not even stopping to slip on shoes. Because of my background as a former newspaper reporter and now a current freelance writer, it was simply a natural instinct for me to grab my camera.

My first concern was for the safety of my neighbors, not photographing the fire. By the time I got to the front yard, Ted was pulling the second hose toward the fire. At that point flames were shooting up from the wood chips and from the deck.

Because there was nothing I could do at this point to help Ted fight the fire, I remained focused on my neighbors getting out. I was unaware that Ted had already pounded on the door and that the family knew about the fire.

When Kristin and Kaylee rounded the corner of the house after exiting via a door into the garage, I comforted them and made sure they were OK. By then the fire was under control and nearly out. Only then did I begin photographing the scene. At one point I also spoke on the phone with Kristin’s husband. She had called him earlier, but I wanted to assure him that his family was alright and update him on the situation.

A smoldering cigarette butt under the deck has been indicated by fire officials as the likely, as-yet unofficial, cause of the fire.

FOR THE LOCAL news story by Jaci Smith, click here to an article in The Faribault Daily News.


TO READ BOB COLLINS News Cut column, click here and check his Monday morning 5×8 entry.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling