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Community rallies around family who lost 4-year-old son in house fire

STEPHEN, Minn. -- This community of 660 is pulling together to help the family struck hard by a Friday night fire that killed a 4-year-old boy and seriously injured two of his older brothers, who were airlifted to the Twin Cities from Altru Hospital in Grand Forks.

A fourth child at home with his brothers that night wasn't injured in the blaze.

Stephen is 50 miles north of East Grand Forks.

The husband and wife were in the Twin Cities Sunday with the injured boys while the fourth brother who also was home when the fire started remains with family members.

"They need to be surrounded at this time," said the Rev. Michael Schendel, who was at the fire Friday and offered special prayers for the family Sunday morning at First Lutheran Church.

He kept in touch with others organizing aid for the family over the weekend.

Injured brothers improve

The hospitalized boys "are doing good, actually fairly decent," said a relative who talked with the husband's sister Sunday. One boy is 16, the other is 13, he said.

One may be released today and the other later this week, the relative said.

The Marshall County Sheriff's Office isn't releasing much information yet, including the family's names, a spokeswoman said Sunday. "We are letting the family grieve a little."

Family members and firefighters said the four boys were home alone when the fire began.

Andrea Wenzlaff, deputy state fire marshal from Thief River Falls who is investigating the fire, said no cause has been firmly established yet. Except that it was accidental, she said. "And the house was not insured. So, they lost everything."

Echoing the fire marshal to emphasize the family's need, Ronalin Steer said, "They lost absolutely everything."

Steer took it upon herself to organize help for the family.

"The community center will be a drop-off point for people to leave things. They really need household goods. Alco and Pamida (stores) in Grafton (N.D.) have donated clothing. Someone will set up an account at Citizens State Bank (Monday)."

The fire started about 10:20 p.m. and had fully engulfed the house 4.5 miles northeast of Stephen by the time firefighters arrived on the scene 10 minutes later, firefighters said.

"I've never seen anything go up that quick," said a relative of the husband. "It was gone in 50 minutes."

The house is where the husband grew up and it was built by his grandfather a century ago, said the relative.

"It was a really nice house, big and very well kept up," said the relative.

The husband and his wife, who grew up in the Warren, Minn., area, moved back to Stephen two or three years ago, shortly after marrying in Colorado, said family members.

On Sunday, only heaps of charred remains surrounded the fireplace and chimney that were left standing. A gazebo only a few feet northwest of the burned-down house appeared untouched by fire.

Ducks swam in a small pond surrounded by still-leafless trees south of the wreckage, belying the deadly violence of Friday night.

Animals need care

Mindy Gerszewski, who is a neighbor, a nurse and an ambulance crew member, was caring for the animals Sunday on the farmstead.

She brought hay over for three horses and a pony.

"I took the goat over to our place," Gerszewski said.

Veterinarian Lyle Mattson from Greenbush, Minn., already examined the horses, which will need some serious care, Gerszewski said.

With the house gone, there is no water supply at the farmstead and the horses probably need someone to take them in, at least for a time, she said.

Several dogs on the residence were picked up by the Pennnington County animal shelter in Thief River Falls, she said.

Boys were home alone

The parents both were at work Friday night in Grafton, N.D., where the husband works at Marvin Windows and his wife, the mother of the boys, operates a cafe she opened several months ago.

The husband arrived home about the time the fire started, said a relative.

Scott Winge of the Stephen fire department said help from firefighters from nearby Kennedy and Argyle was needed and welcomed, as were ambulance services from Karlstad and Thief River Falls.

But even with all the fire trucks and 35 or more firefighters, there was no way to save the house, Winge said.

A firefighter driving from Argyle, 13 to 14 miles south of the fire, could see the glow in the northern sky all the way, said Justin Gajeski, one of the volunteer firefighters in Stephen.

The destruction was fast and complete and the worst part was the long search for the boy, which lasted until 4 p.m. Saturday, Gajeski said.

"The basement was filled with 3 feet of pure ashes that we had to shovel out, looking for him. He was in the opposite corner from where everyone thought he was, from his room. He was in the last spot we dug out. I hope I never have to do that again in my life."