Fundraisers planned for victims of Wells fire

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, August 13, 2017

WELLS — Life goes on, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Former residents of the Wellington Estates apartments in Wells are living with that harsh reality as they work toward reestablishing a new normal after the chaos that has followed since the apartment building was ravaged by a fire Aug. 5.

The Rev. Mary Iverson of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wells said she knows of two families who moved almost immediately into new rental properties, and another who found a rental property later in the week. The remaining nine are in transitional housing, staying with family and friends or at hotels.

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Iverson, as well as other members of the Wells Area Ministerial Association, have helped victims of the fire by helping with deposits and storage fees for the belongings they salvaged when they were able to return to their apartments Tuesday and Wednesday.

Taking stock of what was lost was easier for some than others.

Twenty-four-year-old Jennifer Bixby lived at Wellington Estates for 13 years total, moving away only for a year before returning with her fiance, Trent Kotasek, and their dog to live with her parents David and Nancy Bixby. The couple thought moving back to her parents’ place would be a good way to save money for their wedding and had purchased her wedding dress three weeks prior to the blaze. Until Tuesday, she had no idea if the dress had survived in the second floor apartment.

“That was the first thing I grabbed and I took it outside and just cried in relief because I was so happy that it didn’t get damaged,” Bixby said.

The family lost a number of possessions, including family heirlooms, but she refuses to dwell upon it.

“We’re Bixbys — so we gotta think positive and move forward,” she said. “That’s the only thing we can do.”

Despite not having renter’s insurance, Bixby said she’s confident her family will bounce back and rebuild their lives as they find strength in their faith and love for one another.

“I put it all in God’s hands because I know he’ll make sure everything works out for the best in the end,” she said.

Fellow tenant Sherry Thamez, 50, was shocked to see Bixby’s wedding dress surface from the apartment unscathed. Thamez wasn’t so fortunate, as she lost almost everything.

Despite the former hospital building having a layer of concrete between each floor, Thamez’s first floor apartment was devastated by water damage. After the fire was extinguished she reentered the building alongside Wells Police Officer Eric Neubauer.

Sherry Thamez, former resident of the Wellington Estates apartments, found only one dry item in her apartment on Tuesday when she went to survey the damage left in the wake of the Aug. 5 fire — her grandfather’s 1935 Bible. – Kelly Wassenberg/Albert Lea Tribune

“We got to the front door (of my apartment) and I almost dropped to my knees,” Thamez said. “There was water just coming down, it was pouring down from the ceiling. The ceiling tile in my living room was just starting to fall down and it was just starting to come down in my kitchen, too. And (Neubauer) said, ‘No. It’s just too unsafe. We’re backing out. Nobody’s coming in here.’”

After she came out of her apartment she was hysterical, Thamez said. She remembers her son, Michael Thamez, putting her on the ground as she bawled.

“I couldn’t stand it,” she said.

She left her apartment that morning in nothing but a nightgown and only returned momentarily to grab her purse and keys so she could move her vehicle to make way for the fire trucks arriving on the scene.

After seeing her apartment she was in complete disbelief and knew there might be very little, if anything, that could be salvaged.

“I knew there was concrete between (the floors) because it was an old hospital, but I didn’t know the water would seep through that much or how much water was put (on the fire),” Thamez said.

By the time Tuesday came around, there was more than just water damage to contend with. Like many of the other residents, she found black mold had already begun to grow on some of her belongings. 

“There’s black mold all over the floors, all over the carpets, all over the woodwork and furniture,” she said. “I couldn’t even see my couch.”

There were very few things Thamez could safely take from the apartment. Old family photos were saved from a suitcase that belonged to her grandparents, but the suitcase itself and the rest of its contents had to be discarded. Then she found her grandfather’s Bible. Safely inside a leather-bound case, it was the only dry item Thamez said she found in her apartment. Otherwise, she left her old apartment with nothing more than a small tote of clothes.

The days following the fire were so emotionally draining for her that she felt like she was traumatized all over again. She said she repeatedly received phone calls in which the same questions were asked of her, but the organization making the calls could not provide her with the help she asked for the most — finding a way to replace the CPAP machine she needed to be able to sleep at night.

Her request was instead filled by a good samaritan who wishes to remain anonymous.

Wells resident Michelle Lacher is one of the many volunteers who have stepped forward to help the victims of the fire. She took Thamez and another victim shopping for clothing and other necessities and the good samaritan met them at a department store.

He inquired if she had gotten her CPAP machine replaced. When he found out she had not, he insisted on visiting Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea so that he could buy it for her.

“I cried,” she said. “I gave him the biggest hug I could give.”

He purchased everything she needed, including the machine and accessories, which cost over $800 total. The gift, to her, was priceless, Thamez said. While she knows she will eventually receive some money from her rental insurance policy, she knows she was underinsured and felt a great sense of relief knowing being without the CPAP is one less thing she’ll have to contend with in the weeks and months to follow.

Josh Dulas and Lauren Schuster of People’s State Bank in Wells brought residents of Wellington Estates laundry baskets, laundry detergent, dryer sheets and rolls of quarters on Tuesday, when residents were allowed to go back into the apartments to collect their belongings. – Provided

While Bixby’s and Thamez’s stories differ greatly, their appreciation for the support they received is not. They both noted the thankfulness they have for the community that has given them so much support.

Citizens in the Wells community, as well as groups like the Wells Area Ministerial Association and The Better Way/Five Sisters Project, have been collecting donations and doing what they can to meet the needs of the victims of the fire.

A rummage sale fundraiser has been planned from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m to 2 p.m. Friday in the basement of St. Casimir’s Church in Wells. Fire victims will be allowed to go through the items first to see what they may need. Everything else will then be sold and the proceeds given to the Wellington Fire Relief Fund to help the victims. Donations can also be sent to The Better Way with a notation in the memo for the fire victims. Checks should be mailed to P.O. Box 203, Wells MN 56097; or dropped off at Wells Federal Bank in Wells.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is also trying to match fire victims with donations — especially for more long term needs that may come up as victims move from transitional housing into more permanent housing. Those who have items they would be able to donate can call the church office at 507-553-3513.