Lee Bottem was driving westbound on Highway 64 on his way home to Edina, Minnesota, around 9:45 p.m. on Nov. 10 when he saw a bright glow to his right, flames shooting from a house.
“I immediately pulled in and ran up to the house and banged on the front door, rang the doorbell, but no lights came on,” he recalled
Bottem called 911 to report the fire. He gave the operator the address for the house, stuck the phone in his pocket and began running toward the flames. In those frenzied moments, he recalled other cars passing by but no one stopping.
When no lights came on, Bottem began working his way around the outside of the house banging on windows as he went and yelling for anyone inside. The fire was well underway with the garage already engulfed in flames. In the back of his mind as he pounded on windows and shouted to be heard above the fire, Bottem thought to himself, “If someone is inside, are they armed?”
When he got to the bedroom at the end of the house, he saw what he thought was the glow from a night light, and he started banging harder and yelling as loud as he could.
“It woke somebody up, an older lady. She couldn’t see me because she didn’t have lights on in the house. All she could see was a dark figure yelling at her, ‘Your house is on fire. Get out of the house!” Bottem said. “I shined the flashlight from my phone on my face so she could see what I was saying, but she was completely disoriented.”
The exit she would normally use out the garage was blocked by fire, and above her, the attic had caught on fire. Through the smoke, she worked her way into the living room and then to the front door where Bottem was waiting for her.
“I’m not sure if she wasn’t familiar with the lock, but she couldn’t get the storm door open. She was barefoot in her pajamas. I told her to stand back, I’m going to break the door,” Bottem said.
She asked him not to break the door.
“I have to break your door. Your house is on fire,” Bottem responded.
In a daze, she watched as Bottem kicked the door until it gave way.
“On about the fifth kick it shattered. I broke the rest of the glass away and climbed through the door. I told her I needed to pick her up because there was glass all over the floor. I picked her up and carried her out of her house and put her in my car. I turned the heater on, and I gave her my jacket. I asked her if there was anybody else in the house, any pets, and she said, ‘No, nobody else is in the house.’ I backed up maybe a hundred feet. I sat outside. I wanted to make sure she was OK but also try to give her a little privacy until the fire department and the police got there,” Bottem said.
It wasn’t until Bottem stepped out of the car and caught his breath that what just had happened began to sink in.
“It was a pretty intense fire. The garage was burned to the ground, and the fire was in the ceiling, burning through the roof of the house. I was just so scared for her. It’s such a scary thing, you see this lady behind the door, and she can’t get out because it’s locked. It was one of these locks where she kept trying to spin it and it never stopped where she could unlock it, ” Bottem said.
Leaning against the car watching helplessly as the house was swallowed in flames, Bottem thought about everything that was lost.
“Watching a person's house burn down is terrible, especially at her age, all those memories.”
An hour earlier, 77-year-old Bernice Goodrich thought she smelled grease burning. She checked the kitchen, then the garage, but she couldn’t find anything wrong. Normally at night, when she got up to go to the bathroom she would walk to the living room and check things out.
“It was crazy. I was just walking into the bathroom, and someone started pounding on my windows, ‘Your house is on fire. Get out,’” Bernice said. “I looked over toward that corner of the house, the fire was burning all right, it was all flames.”
Bernice made it as far as the front door, but the door got stuck..
“The thing is that one door sticks, so I had a hard time getting out. I got one open and he said, ‘Just hang on. Stand back, and I’ll kick it out,’” said Bernice.
Moments later Bernice was safe, resting in the stranger’s car wearing his coat to stay warm.
“It was scary. I think I was shocked. Considering I was out there less than an hour before, and I didn’t see or smell anything. That was a night, and I don’t want to go through another one like that again. He got me, and I’m glad he did that,” Bernice said.
Deer Park Fire Department Chief Jeff Croes said his department aided by New Richmond Fire & Rescue and firefighters from United Fire & Rescue out of Baldwin responded to a structure fire at 2190 State Highway 64 at approximately 9:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 10. More than 20 firefighters battled the blaze for more than an hour before getting it under control. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
“In a world with cell phones, we get more calls now from people who see something and just continue on driving and don’t stop. For somebody to stop and kick in a door to do what he did is by all means heroic. It’s almost unheard of,” Croes said.
Inside the flames consumed a lifetime of memories, quilts Bernice had made over the years, her favorite cookbook left on the kitchen table, one particular outfit with a church pin she liked to wear and the dining room table.
“The table was Roger’s grandparents’ wedding present from his parents when they got married in 1909,” Bernice said. “I think I lost pretty near everything. It’s going to take a while to get over this, but I’m glad I got out.”
Bernice did not catch the stranger’s name, the man who rescued her from the fire and waited with her until the firefighters arrived and shortly thereafter her son.
“I would tell him thank you, thank you and give him a big hug.”